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Flower in a Storm Volume 1

Flower in a Storm Volume 1 by Shigeyoshi Takagi

Flower in a Storm has plenty of ridiculous action and romance, making it an ideal summer read. Riko is the heroine who (say it together with me!) just wants a normal high-school life. Unfortunately she is gifted with physical abilities way beyond a normal high school girl and she always seems to stand out. Previously a boy rejected her declaration of affection after he saw her competing with the boys on school sports day, so Riko tries to downplay her abilities. Unfortunately her days of anonymity are over when the heir to a mega corporation Ran Tachibana bursts into her classroom and proposes marriage. Several weeks ago Riko avoided an accident with Ran’s vehicle by leaping several feet up in the air and landing on the hood of his car. Ran was instantly smitten. He announces to Riko that she’ll have to be his if he manages to capture her by 5 o’clock and the chase begins.

The art in Flower in a Storm is dynamic and stylish. Several panels look like frames from an action movie. Ran appears dressed up in a suit, flanked by bodyguards holding guns. He frequently visits Riko’s school via helicoptor. I appreciated Takagi’s attention to detail with her character designs. Ran seems to change his expensive glasses for every story. Ran and Riko’s progress in romance is derailed by Ran’s arrogant personality and the fact that he’s also a target for corporate assassins. Even though Riko’s longing for normalcy is a very famliar manga heroine character trait, it was fun to see a shoujo heroine being so physically dynamic. She jumps out of three story high windows, kicks a gun out of an assassin’s hands, and jumps out of a moving car. Ran’s persistence and genuine caring for Riko causes her to gradually develop feelings for him. At two volumes, it looks like this series will be short and sweet. I’m interested in reading more of Takagi’s work if it is licensed here.

Library Wars: Love and War Volume 1 – review and giveaway

I will start out by saying that I am an unabashed fan of the Library War franchise. What is there not to love about stories where librarians fight censorship with machine guns? In Japan there are the original Library War novels, the shoujo and seinen manga versions of the story, the anime, and random tchotkes. Shoujo Beat is bringing out the shoujo version of Library War and I hope it does well enough that we get some of the other types of merchandise released in the US.

In Japan the government has passed laws that have created rival military organizations. The Media Betterment Committee is tasked with control and censorship over all forms of media. The Library Defense Force fights for freedom of expression. Instead of battling censorship in the courtroom, fights over books involve plenty of guns. Going to library school is like going to boot camp. The heroine of Library Wars: Love and War is Iku Kasahara, a freakishly tall athletic girl who had a fateful encounter with a LDF officer when she was a child. He defended her right to read when a book she wanted was about to be confiscated and as a result she’s determined to join the defense force to become just like her ideal “prince”.

One of the things I like about Iku is that she has some of the traits traditionally assigned to male manga heroes. She’s a dumb jock who cares deeply about her job and tries to make up for her shortcomings by trying hard. Her companion in school is her roommate Asako Shibazaki who is enrolled in the more cerebral librarian track while Iku tries to master the physical capabilities necessary to become the first female member of the LDF. The only problem Iku has with her training is her drill instructor Atsushi Dojo. He seems to have singled her out for harsher treatment, or does he just have high expectations for her? He tends to get a strange expression on his face when Iku mentions her long-lost Prince and sometimes he seems strangely familiar to Iku. Iku is determined to antagonize Dojo whenever possible, as she drop kicks him in martial arts class only to find herself trapped in a sadistic headlock.

Iku struggles to attain her goal, foiling people who attempt to deface library property, mastering classification systems, and rappelling down a building. Her strength is her willpower. She loves reading and she’s passionate about defending books. As Iku is singled out to join the LDF she’s joined by another new recruit. Hikaru Tezuka is academically perfect and doesn’t understand why the other new rookie is an emotional mess whose main skills are height and being able to run really fast.

The art in Library Wars is serviceable generic shoujo. I don’t think I’d recognize the artist’s style if I were to read another one of her works, but I’m really reading Library Wars for the story and not the art. This manga gives me the warm fuzzies. Librarianship isn’t a very glamorous profession, and the media portrayals of librarianship don’t often extend beyond the image of a tired old spinster going “shush.” So seeing librarians dressed in uniforms and performing training exercises to become action heroes was enormously entertaining. Iku’s a somewhat familiar character type, but her tendency to never give up is admirable and inspires sympathy in the reader. Seeing her unconventional friendship develop with Dojo was fun. He clearly knows more about her than he’s letting on, and she’s gradually discovering that her merciless drill sergeant might have a soft side. This manga is a must read for anyone that loves books or libraries.

And because I love this manga so much I used some of my amazon referral money to buy an extra copy, and I’m going to give it away to share the Library Wars love. To enter, just leave a comment on this post mentioning what weapon you would use to fight censorship if you were a member of the Library Defense Force. I’ll randomly select a winner on June 10th. I think I would reclaim the metal rods inside library card catalogs and use them to poke the enemies of intellectual freedom full of holes.

Honey Hunt Volume 4

Honey Hunt Volume 4 by Miki Aihara

Honey Hunt continues to deliver plenty of soap opera goodness. Yura is a rising teen idol, throwing herself into show business as a way of rebelling against her toxic actress mother and absent musician father. She’s achieved a small level of success, but has no idea how to feel about her relationship with the equally cute teen idol brothers Q-ta and Haruka. As I was reading the earlier volumes I thought that it wouldn’t be a Aihara manga unless the heroine was juggling the attentions of at least three men and now it is only too obvious that Yura’s manager has a crush on her too.

The best scene in this manga was when Yura’s manager Keiichi informs her that she has to give up on the idea of romance for a year so she can focus on her career. Poor Yura trusts Keiichi entirely and she confesses that Q-ta has kissed her as they’re driving back from a job. Keiichi leans in close as if to kiss her too, and when she freaks out he informs her that she has to learn how to handle men hitting on her if she’s going to be a real celebrity. Throughout this whole scene, the driver of the car is looking at this train wreck in the rear view mirror with a hilarious expression of disbelief on her face. After several Haruka-centric volumes Q-ta is back and he shows himself to be charismatic but incredibly selfish. He tends to pop up and pull Yura away from her other commitments, but then he spends most of his time with her talking about his obsession with her father’s talent. Yura actually does stand up for herself and tells him not to take her out if her father is all he’s going to talk about.

Yura runs off with Q-ta on the evening her drama airs on TV, abandoning her housemate’s planned party for her. It is pretty clear that Q-ta is not the best influence for her. Haruka at least seems to care about her more than her show business pedigree. I’m firmly on team Haruka but knowing Aihara’s tendency to pair up her heroines with the most disappointing romantic partner possible, I’m predicting that she will end up with Q-ta and I will seethe inwardly when I put down the final volume of this series. But along the way I’m enjoying all the romantic complications and Aihara’s slick art that seems to get better and better at portraying teenage mortification and the agony of first love.

Ristorante Paradiso

Ristorante Paradiso by Natsume Ono

I’ve enjoyed reading Natsume Ono’s quirky samurai manga House of Five Leaves on the Sigikki site so I was curious to see what her series about bespectacled men working in an Italian restaurant would be like. I ended up having a mixed reaction. I very much enjoyed the slice of life stories in the book, but the main plot line was disappointing. Years ago Nicoletta’s mother abandoned her to be raised by her grandparents when the man she was involved with announced that he’d never want to marry a woman with an existing child. Nicoletta is all grown up, and she’s traveled to Italy with the intention of confronting her mother and her husband Lorenzo. As Nicoletta notices the restaurant that Lorenzo runs she notices that all the workers are handsome older men who wear glasses.

Olga introduces Nicoletta around as the daughter of an “old friend” and promises to help her find an apartment if she doesn’t reveal her true identity. Nicoletta goes along with the plan, and she soon finds herself captivated by the restaurant and in particular the head waiter Claudio. She decides to apprentice herself to the cook of the restaurant. Where Ristorante Paradiso is at its best is capturing Nicoletta’s reactions as she gets to know the restaurant and the men who work there better. Her relationship with Olga gradually develops, as Olga is in the habit of dropping by her daughter’s apartment to offer love advice or drop off a new cooking pot.

The weakness of Ristorante Paradiso is in its central set-up. The mother daughter abandonment issue seems to exist as only as a way to get Nicoletta to the restaurant. It ends up getting resolved in a lackadaisical way. All the men in the restaurant seem to be devoted to Olga, happily giving in to her glasses fetish even if they don’t actually need corrective eyewear. And while Olga is referred to as beautiful, she’s not showcased as having the type of charm that I think would cause men to unhesitatingly drop everything to keep her happy. While I wasn’t thrilled with all of the plot elements, I did find Ono’s art very charming. She has a raw and unfinished style that seems refreshing after seeing too much slick and overworked manga. I especially like the way she draws her characters’ mouths as simple expressive lines, either turned down in sadness or twisted with a wry smile. I’m hoping that the upcoming sequel series Gente will focus more on fun times at the restaurant and less on the Nicoletta-Olga relationship. Even though Ristorante Paradiso was a little uneven, it still felt like a work from a promising creator, and I’ll probably give the first volume of Gente a try when it comes out too,

Butterflies, Flowers Volume 2

Butterflies, Flowers Volume 2 by Yuki Yoshihara

I really like this series. I thought the first volume was fun but volume two spends more time exploring the budding relationship of “lady” turned office worker Choko and servant turned sadistic boss Masayuki. At work Choko sees Masayuki calmly reject the advances of other women. But when the niece of the company CEO turns up and announces that she’s selected Masayuki for her husband he isn’t able to quickly turn her down. Choko is dismayed when she observes Masayuki hanging out with another woman. One of the things I like about the series is the sudden shifts in personality for both characters. Choko slips from being a calm office worker into chibi mode, where she’s drawn to look vaguely like an angry hippo in a suit. Masayuki is a secret otaku, making references to Initial D and talking about the differences between various Gundam theme songs.

Butterflies, Flowers easily moves from workplace comedy to more touching moments, as Masayuki takes Choko back to the place where her family’s estate used to be. He announces that he’s determined to restore her family’s land, because he’s looking for a place that feels like home again. The couple begins to officially date, but they run into issues in the bedroom. I enjoy the way Yoshihara is able to switch back and forth between a touching moment of the couple confessing their feelings to broad slapstick comedy. The manga never feels inconsistent in tone. I still enjoy Yoshihara’s “evil faces” the most. The way a shadow will fall across Masayuki’s face when he’s grimly plotting his next move is hilarious.

I hope this series sells well. This is exactly the type of manga that I’d like to see more of. It deals with sex in a funny way, being more mature than what you’d find in a typical title from the Shoujo Beat imprint but it doesn’t go into the sometimes excessive territory of something like the titles published by the Aurora Luv Luv line. Yoshihara has a wicked sense of humor and she’s created a couple that I feel like rooting for.

Knights of the Zodiac Volume 4 (Saint Seiya)

I’ve mentioned before that I have a certain fondness for the Saint Seiya franchise because the anime was the first non-Robotech anime I really got into, back in the day when the only way you could watch anime was to sneak into your local University’s anime club for viewings of hazy-looking third generation subtitled VHS tapes. Viz deserves a medal for putting the manga out. I can’t imagine that it is a huge seller, because the art does have a very vintage feel to it. But Saint Seiya is shonen manga distilled into its very goofy essence. I wouldn’t want to sit down and read 5 volumes at once, but I like picking up a volume here and there because the goofy fighting serves as a palate cleanser when I’ve been reading too much shoujo.

The fourth volume continues the battle for the gold cloth as Seiya and his fellow Knights face off against dark versions of themselves in the secret caverns underneath Mt. Fuji. Seiya fights Black Pegasus, Hyoga fights Black Swan, etc. I always thought before that Shiryu the Dragon Knight was my favorite simply due to his habit of coming back from near death experiences so often. However, I found myself being very entertained by Hyoga. He’s mocked for his devotion to his dead mother (he likes to visit her shipwreck in the icy ocean) and yells all his battle cries in Russian. Everyone faces off with their evil twin, and Shiryu comes back (in a coffin!) from sacrificing half his blood to repair his comrades’ battle armor to fight back yet again.

My favorite moment in this volume was when Black Swan records Hyoga’s ultimate move with his eye, and right before he dies he plucks out his eye and teleports it to Phoenix. The Phoenix uses the recording on the eyeball to learn the secrets of Hyoga’s fighting technique when he fights Hyoga later. How awesome is that?! If you are in the mood for plenty of punching, blood spurting, gouged out eyes, and battle cries like “Black Meteor Punch!” Knights of the Zodiac delivers all of that shonen goodness.

Kekkaishi Volumes 2-5

I read the first volume of this series over a year ago, but it has taken some time for me to get around to reading a few of the subsequent volumes in the series. I recently sat down with the next four volumes of this entertaining shonen story about a boy and the girl next door who happen to be demon fighters.

Kekkaishi Volume 2 by Yellow Tanabe

While the first volume mostly focused on setting up the background and situation of the hero Yoshimori, the second volume gives the reader a peak into the motivations of his older next-door neighbor Tokine. Her father continued the family tradition of protecting the sacred site in their neighborhood, even though he didn’t have enough power to truely be suited to the task. When a demon-tamer from the mysterious and aptly named Shadow Organization arrives Tokine is forced to confront her past and Yoshimori is even more determined to act to make sure that she doesn’t come to harm. The final story in the volume provides a unique perspective on demon hunting, as Yoshimori’s classmate Yurina reveals that she has the ability to see spirit, and she suspects that there may be another reason for his constant sleeping in class.

Kekkaishi Volume 3 by Yellow Tanabe

Yoshimori continues to train. His cranky Grandpa assigns even more difficult tasks to Yoshimori while keeping secret the depth of his grandson’s untapped power. One the ways Yoshimori and Tokine complement each other is that she has a greater degree of accuracy and control when trying to fight demons, while Yoshimori just tends to blast away with his strength. They both vow to get stronger. Yoshimori wants to improve his technique so he can match Tokine, and she resolves to refine her abilities even further. One of the things I like about the series is the variety of demon character designs. Yoshimori battles a fox with ice powers and then is forced to battle a demon dog with three hangers-on. The power of the Karasumori site that Yoshimori protects often gives the demons the power to transform, growing larger and scarier. The dog was an old companion of Yoshimori’s spirit dog Madarao. Yoshomori releases the binding that keeps Madarao from exercising his full power and comes to a new understanding with his family’s guardian spirit.

Kekkaishi Volume 4 by Yellow Tanabe

One of the things I like about this series is the shifts in tone from chapter to chapter. Just when things might be getting too serious with all the demon fighting, Tanabe brings up Yoshimori’s addiction to making castle cakes. The first part of this volume deals with the spirit of a departed pastry chef and Yoshimori’s efforts to help him find peace. The rest of the volume focuses on the introduction of a new character, Yoshimori’s older brother Masamori. Masamori wasn’t chosen to inherit the guardian role that Yoshimori occupies. Instead Masamori has gone to work for the Shadow Organization and refined his talents, turning him into a formidable potential foe. Is it just sibling rivalry that causes him to test Yoshimori, or does he have darker motivations? Yoshimori is annoyed even more when it appears that Tokine may have a crush on Masamori. I like the way the spirit animal companions reflect the personalities of their owners. Yoshimori and Tokine both have sidekicks that appear to be dogs, but Masamori is accompanied by a dark fish and he’s surrounded by images of dark water with hidden depths.

Kekkaishi Volume 5 by Yellow Tanabe

The fifth volume has my favorite spirit so far. Lord Uru is a squat creature with a wide-brimmed hat who appears at Yoshimori’s school. Uru is ravenous, causing people to exclaim when they find that all their food has mysteriously disappeared. It turns out that Lord Uru was once a forest deity with a connection to Yoshimori’s family. After cleaning out the school Lord Uru visits Yoshimori’s house and sits down to dinner with the family. Yoshimori offers to make any treat the god would like and Uru picks donuts.

Uru has appeared because his bed is broken, and Yoshimori has to travel to a parallel world in order to fix it. Lord Uru’s former realm might be the energy source of the Karasumori site that Yoshimori and Tokine have to protect. While Tanabe’s art has always been clearly designed and pleasant to look at, he takes things to another level with the portrayal of Lord Uru’s refuge, which can only be reached by jumping into a black hole in the middle of a lake. Yoshimori’s Grandpa warns him that he must maintain his focus because he may forget who he is while visiting the other realm, so Yoshimori scrawls the most important things to him all over his hands and arms.

Clarity of storytelling isn’t something I take for granted when reading manga. Tanabe manages to juggle so many elements in Kekkaishi like monster of the week battles, the possibility of a romance between Yoshimori and Tokine, the duo’s struggles to refine their power, and the mysteries behind the Karasumori site and the Shadow Organization. So many ongoing plots certainly keep me intrigued as a reader, and when Tanabe needs to take a break to focus on cake baking or roach hunting she’s able to accommodate humorous episodes without them feeling intrusive or like they are taking away from the main narrative. Tanabe slowly reveals the history of Yoshimori and Tokine’s linked families, and the reader can appreciate Yoshimori as he slowly grows in understanding of his role in the world.

The first and eighth chapters of Kekkaishi are available on Shonen Sunday. Kekkaishi is well worth checking out if you like intelligent shonen adventures.

High School Debut Volume 13

High School Debut Volume 13 by Kazune Kawahara

I always approach final manga volumes with mixed emotions. It is nice to see a series wrap up, but sometimes concluding volumes just peter out, without giving the reader a satisfactory ending. While some of the recent volumes of High School Debut meandered a bit, the final volume seemed much more focused. Haruna and Yoh are facing the prospect of a long distance relationship when he starts making plans to study in Tokyo for college while she’s wrapping up her final year of high school. At first she begs him not to go, but then she decides to put her selfish feelings aside and encourage him to follow his dream. It wouldn’t be High School Debut without some frantic plans and ultimately benign misunderstandings. Haruna pretends to be happy about Yoh’s departure by pasting a smile on her face that is incredibly strained. Yoh sees right through her. Their friends take the typical senior class trips, and Haruna and Yoh gradually come to terms with the changes in their lives through snowboarding and making their relationship official when Haruna has a fateful encounter with Yoh’s mom.

As a shoujo heroine, Haruna was unique because she was so open with her feelings. Yoh has always provided a counterpoint to her openness with his tendency to express himself through his actions instead of words. We can see how she’s influenced Yoh as he starts showing signs of his own insecurity at the thought of boys hitting on her when she’s gone. He puts aside low-key personality when he runs around to all of Haruna’s friends to ask them to take care of her when he’s far away. I’ll always be fond of Yoh’s character design, because it is so rare to see a male lead with weary lines underneath his eyes. The ending of the manga flashes back to the beginning in pitch-perfect way that made me close the cover with a smile on my face. High School Debut is by far one of the better high school comedy romance manga that I’ve read. Even though it might stretch across thirteen volumes, I was happy for the longish length of the story because Kawahara’s characters are so individualistic and idiosyncratic.

Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee

Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee Volume 1 by Hiroyuki Asada

Tegami Bachi starts off with a familiar device in shonen manga. A prequel chapter shows a cool older character meeting up with a little kid, who vows to be just as cool when he grows up. The land of Amberground is shrouded in perpetual darkness, with only the capital city Akatsuki illuminated by an artificial star. Mail carriers called Letter Bees are a rare class of people that are free to move from town to town as they complete their errands. Gauche Suede is a Letter Bee, charged with delivering a small child named Lag Seeing to his aunt. Lag isn’t thrilled about being a letter or going along with Gauche. His mother vanished and he’s being sent to his Aunt in another town. As Lag travels with Gauche he learns about the dangers of the road the Letter Bees travel. There are dangerous insect-like creatures called Gaichuu that lurk in the countryside and attack the Letter Bees. The central message of the first chapter is “You’ve gotta have heart.” The Bees have special guns embedded with spirit amber that are fueled with fragments of their heart, and they are aided in their journey by animal sidekicks called dingos. They are dedicated to delivering letters that express the hearts of the postal customers. Lag has an eye made of red spirit amber, which gives him the potential to have more power than the average Letter Bee. There was a little too much weeping for my taste as Lag processes his emotions about his lost mother and begins to relate to Gauche. After Lag and Gauche have many adventures along the way to their destination, Lag vows to become a Letter Bee when he grows up.

It is five years later and Lag is ready to leave his town to take the entrance exam to become a Letter Bee. Along the way he finds a girl stuck in a crevice with a misaddressed label stuck to her arm. Lag names her Niche. As they begin their journey together, Lag learns that Niche’s hair can harden on command into sword-like blades. She’s a powerful companion. Lag wants to find Gauche, but he has to become an official Letter Bee first.

I enjoyed the world building aspects of the title. The illustration of a world shrouded in darkness, with the only illumination being a false star that looks like a Christmas tree ornament made for some compelling images. Asada uses a thick line and European designs for his buildings, making some of the background images feel vaguely like wood cuts. I’m not surprised at a certain amount of fan service in shonen manga, but a subplot involving Niche’s refusal to wear underwear and Lag’s instance on giving her a pair of boxers was more than a little bizarre. I did like Niche’s Medusa-like superpowers, which reminded me of old issues of the Fantastic Four.

Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee Volume 2 by Hiroyuki Asada

The second volume shows Lag and Niche on their way to the Letter Bee headquarters. They stop in a town that’s the end of the line and quickly get into trouble when Lag’s transit pass is stolen by Nelli, a local street urchin. It turns out that she’s struggling with her feelings of anger towards an older kid in her town named Jiggy Pepper who left to become a Letter Bee. Her little brother died soon after Jiggy left, leaving behind a letter that couldn’t be delivered. Lag goes beyond the call of duty to try to help resolve Nelli’s situation and then travels on to face his Letter Bee test.

I thought the underwear shenanigans that I found off-putting in the first volume were mitigated by the second volume. It was pretty hilarious when Lag asked Niche what she was wearing on her head and she produced an animal that was all mouth and sharp teeth and announced that his name was Steak. The reader learns more about her background as a semi-mystical creature known as “the Child of Maka.” There’s a little more action and less angst from Lag as he battles the forces that tormented Nelli’s heart and then turns to his outward test of Letter Bee ability. The art in Tegami Bachi can sometimes be a bit on the crowded side, but I actually enjoyed all the extra tiny stars that often decorate the panels, as they help remind the reader of the fantastic world that Lag is navigating. I have to say that the covers illustrations for these books are incredibly attractive, with tones of blue and lavender serving to illustrate the darkness of Amberground. I wish there were even more color pages included in these books, although there are a couple at the beginning of each volume. I’m glad I read the first two volumes at once because after reading the second volume it was clear that Lag’s adventures are just beginning. There are hints of additional subplots that might be explored like the motivations of various people in the Letter Bee bureaucracy and Lag’s quest to find Gauche again. As long as Tegami Bachi concentrates on action and world building I’ll be interested to see what happens next.

Review copy of volume 2 provided by the publisher

Bleach Volume 30

Bleach Volume 30 by Tite Kubo

Well, it has been a long time since I’ve read a volume of Bleach. Fortunately, it wasn’t too hard for me to pick up on what was going on even though I’d only read up to volume 16 or so in the past. Ichigo and his band of friends are on a rescue mission to save Orihime in the Hueco Mundo story arc. They have to fight, and fight some more! I was interested to see that Chad has developed “The Left Arm of the Demon” as he beats up a man in an afro to a pulp. There are many other skirmishes, but the heart of this volume is Rukia’s struggle as she faces down what appears to be the resurrected Captain Kaien Shiba, the mentor who she was forced to kill.

Perhaps because Rukia was sidelined so much in Bleach’s first story arc, I really enjoyed seeing her duke it out in volume 30. She had such a haunted expression in her eyes when confronted with the reanimated corpse of her former comrade, but she didn’t give up when she realized she had to fight. Part of the reason why I dropped Bleach was that I thought the endless fighting of this shonen manga would get to be a little boring. But while I was reading this volume I was struck again by what a great artist Kubo is. Bleach is relentlessly stylish, with giant sound effects incorporated into the action scenes, the words themselves looking like explosions of energy. He isn’t afraid to get absolutely ridiculous with character design, as shown when the final villain reveals that his head is a jar filled with two other shrunken heads that look like mad balls. While I might wish for more complex plots and character development, I found myself enjoying the execution of the individual fight sequences.

While I might not rush out and read all the volumes I missed, revisiting Bleach did remind me why I liked it so much when I started reading it. It is somehow comforting to know that Ichigo will always be out there on a mystical battlefield with people yelling things like “Six-Rod Light Restraint” in order to cause explosions of energy. The formula is always the same, but Bleach has constant elements you can always count on. The villains will always take the time to explain how unbeatable they are. A hero will find hidden reserves of strength at the last possible moment and blow their enemy away. The paneling and pacing of the fight scenes will be epic, and the protagonist will strike a super-cool pose and affirm the power of friendship. That’s what this shonen manga does well.

Review copy provided by the publisher.