Tag Archives: Japanese

Natsume’s Book of Friends (Manga)

Mangaka: Yuki Midorikawa

Status: Ongoing (currently 22 volumes)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

For his entire life, Takashi Natsume has been able to see yokai, and it’s brought him little but trouble–especially since his parents’ death. He’s been shipped between relatives who don’t really want him, who find him odd at best or a liar more often than not. It’s been a life that has led him to be withdrawn, to hide who he really is and what he sees. But when he moves in with an older couple of distant relatives who legitimately seem to want him, things begin to change. Natsume starts making friends at school. What’s more, he inherits an old book from his grandmother, Reiko Natsume, who he finds was also able to see yokai. In fact, possession of this book brings him into contact with even more yokai than before, including one that has gotten itself stuck in the form of a maneki neko who sticks around . . . to protect him and the book (and to raid free food from him). As time goes on, Natsume finds himself building true connections to those around him, both human and yokai, as well as to the memories of his grandmother Reiko.

Natsume’s Book of Friends is such a delightfully different manga that it’s difficult to truly explain. It’s shoujo, even though the main character is a boy, and that combination sets the story up to be very different than it would be if it were shounen (more action-y) or if the main character were female (where it would likely be more of a romance). As it is, it’s perfect, going more into Natsume’s sense of isolation at first and into his growing connections as time goes on. He grows in his understanding of Reiko as well, seeing memories of her through the Book of Friends. It’s also really neat to see him growing in confidence and conviction as the story progresses. I guess just in general there’s a lot of character growth developed in this manga, which I really love. Plus, Natsume just has an interesting personality, kind of blunt, actually–but it works and is enjoyable to read without being too overpowering for the story. The general atmosphere of this story is gentle, tranquil, even in the places where there’s action or peril. Plus, the softness of the illustrations helps to draw out this quality in the manga even more. It makes for a pretty relaxing read. One thing I didn’t care for quite so much in the earlier volumes is that it is extremely episodic–to the point of repeating the whole entry sequence for each chapter and having the chapters not connect at all. I get that this was intentional based on how the manga was originally published, but it’s a bit annoying to read. But this reduces significantly as you get further into the story, to the point that you have multiple-chapter story arcs and such–much more engaging to read at that point. Honestly though, even that episodic nature is a minor distraction to how generally enjoyable and peaceful this story is on the whole, and I would highly recommend this series.

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Gintama (2017 Movie)

Warner Bros. Pictures

My rating: 5 of 5

Edo-period Japan has been invaded by aliens from outer space, and the country looks a bit different now with aliens (known as Amanto) in positions of political and social privilege and samurai bereft of their swords. One such former samurai, Sakata Gintoki, has embraced the challenges of this new life by becoming a sweets-loving odd-jobber along with his young friends, Shinpachi and Kagura. But when rumors of a serial killer begin to arise, Gin finds himself drawn back by his past in order to protect the present that he loves.

Okay, first of all, confession: I totally started watching this live-action remake of Gintama just because I love Shun Oguri’s work; never mind the fact that I also love the anime/manga on which this movie is based. Having said that, Oguri did a fabulous job with the role of Gin, but there was a ton of other things that I loved about Gintama. First of all, the casting in general was very well done, and everyone did a great job portraying their characters. And, even though the particular story arc they chose involves a lot of characters, they didn’t go chopping people out left and right, so fair warning, there are a lot of people to keep track of. But I appreciated that they went to the trouble of not chopping . . . either characters or plot, actually. Plot context: at the start, we do get the cafe scene where Gin and Shinpachi first meet–but after that, there’s this big plot gap, and the majority of the movie is the Benizakura arc. I wasn’t expecting them to jump headlong into the story like that, but I think it was a smart choice. It’s one of my favorite parts of the anime/manga for a lot of the reasons that make it a great choice for the movie as well. It captures the absurdity and general silliness that makes Gintama (whatever the medium) such a  fun, funny story; I confess to laughing out loud for a great portion of the movie. You’ve got fourth-wall breaking, references galore, plus just plain ridiculousness (like the Yorozuya and Shinsengumi’s beetle-hunting madness). But this arc also has a lot of heart. It pulls from both Gin’s and Katsura’s childhood days as well as from their resistance-fighter exploits, incorporating that into the present-day plot. And of course, said plot allows for some great action sequences and sword fights–it’s one of the few points in the series where Gin gets a chance to truly look cool for a moment . . . before he ruins it by picking his nose or something. As far as the sets and makeup/CGI, it’s honestly not the greatest. I mean, a lot of the aliens are obviously just folks in animal suits or wearing body paint. But that fits the story–the absurdity and fourth-wall breaking and such–so well that I honestly prefer that over awesome, convincing CG for everything. It just works. So yes, I really loved the Gintama live-action movie, although I would caution that if you haven’t either read the manga or watched the anime at least a bit, you’ll likely be a bit confused; even with two-and-a-half hours of film, there’s still a lot that isn’t explained in a lot of detail. But for fans . . . absolutely recommended; it captures not just the story itself, but the heart of Gintama.

Written & Directed by Yūichi Fukuda/Based on Gintama by Hideaki Sorachi/Starring Shun Oguri, Masaki Suda, Kanna Hashimoto, Yūya Yagira, Ryo Yoshizawa, Masami Nagasawa, Masaki Okada, Nakamura Kankurō VI, & Tsuyoshi Dōmoto

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Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid: Elma’s Office Lady Diary (Manga)

Mangaka: Ayami Kazama

Spinoff of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid by coolkyoushinja

Status: Ongoing (currently 1 volume)

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Lady Elma is a powerful Harmony Dragon who thrives on keeping peace and order back in her own world. But she’s traveled to the human world now, disguised as a human herself, in order to bring her frenemy–the dragon Tohru–back home with her. Only, Tohru is being stubborn about going back, and Elma’s not going without her, and well . . . looks like she may be staying for a while. And all the food in this world is soooo delicious–but also expensive. And thus, it’s time for Elma to get a job. She ends up with an office job in the same company as Tohru’s Miss Kobayashi, and surprisingly enough, gets on swimmingly despite her numerous quirks. Maybe people just find them endearing?

On the one hand, having both an original manga series and a spinoff series (Kanna’s Daily Life) already, adding another spinoff to the same series almost seems like a bit much. And yet, I found the first volume of this manga to be enjoyable, enough so that I will probably continue reading the series. It definitely fits with the series–actually, kudos to the mangaka for how well it meshes both with the original and the other spinoff series. Yet this manga also fills a unique niche in this particular universe. It carries on the absurdity, the humor, the over-the-top characters, and the contrast between dragons and normal people in a way that is just as amusing as either of the other series. But because the focus is on Elma, who we don’t see that much of in the others, and because it’s focusing on her time at work to a large extent, the flavor of the story is different. You’ve got a lot of coworker interactions, conversations with people who don’t have a clue that she’s a dragon, plus Kobayashi’s reactions to said interactions. The author also gives us more of a picture of Kobayashi’s own workday when she’s away from all the craziness at home, which is fun. Also, speaking of the story’s flavor, there is so much delicious-looking food in here; seriously, Elma loves her food, and it rapidly becomes a story focus, in an amusing sense. I also liked the chapter setup–sets of 4-koma manga grouped around a central theme or story. In all, I would primarily recommend Elma’s Office Lady Diary to those who are already fans of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, but for those people, I think this manga provides a good (funny) rounding out of the world and story already presented in the other two series.

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Handa-kun (Manga)

Mangaka: Satsuki Yoshino

Status: Complete (7 volumes)

My rating: 4 of 5

Misunderstandings abound as Sei Handa weathers through his high school days. You see, Handa-kun (with a little help from his best friend Kawafuji) has managed to convince himself that all the other students at his school hate him–to the point that he misinterprets innocuous, or even positive, interactions in a negative light. Not that he interacts much with anyone at school, since he’s even told Kawafuji not to talk to him, for fear that the hatred will spread to him too! Not that there actually is any hatred at all. Rather, Handa is the most popular student at the school. His reputation as an up and coming calligrapher, combined with his good looks and mysterious aura, have gained him a following of admirers that grows until it extends even to other schools in the area! Not that poor Handa-kun has a clue. And of course, no one dares to actually approach to speak with him and break his misapprehensions.

Handa-kun is a delightfully amusing spinoff of the charming series Barakamon by the same creator. There are some things–like the lovely art style–that carry over from this series. But this is a 6-years-earlier spinoff, and Yoshino makes a strong distinction between the two, so don’t expect Barakamon 2.0 here. Rather, Handa-kun is a lighthearted gag manga, full of tropes, puns, and goofiness of all sorts. It’s charming, but in its own unique way. It’s a slice-of-life school story, with a more shounen style rather than the seinen feel of Barakamon. And it’s really just so completely over-the-top improbable; a lot of the humor actually comes directly from that fact. So yes, it is an interesting look into Sei Handa’s backstory, but it’s kind of fantastic too. Charming and funny, though. I would recommend Handa-kun if you’re interested in comedic school stories, whether you’ve read Barakamon or not.

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FiND YOTSUBA (Artbook)

Illustrations by Kiyohiko Azuma/Photography by Miho Kakuta

My rating: 5 of 5

This gorgeous, adorable artbook features photographs from Japan, mostly of somewhat rural settings and everyday situations. And inserted into each and every photograph is an illustration of the world’s most amusing and cute kiddo ever–Yotsuba! Suddenly, each picture is both beautiful and fun.

Yotsuba&! is one of my absolute favorite stories, manga or otherwise. So naturally, I was delighted to discover there was an artbook available. But wow, FiND YOTSUBA surpassed my expectations. The photos themselves are a fabulous window into everyday Japanese life; they’re lovely. And the way Azuma-sensei fits Yotsuba into the pictures is wonderful. He manages to match color and lighting, use shadows and reflections brilliantly, play with the visual focus points, and even include the photo-blur you get when something moves too quickly to make her place in the pictures seem more natural. Sometimes, you have to pull a real “where’s Waldo” looking for her. And what really pulls everything together is that way that, even without any text or connecting storyline, Yotsuba’s personality, the way she’s so full of life and excitement, carries through so strongly in the pictures. They made me smile–a lot–and even laugh aloud at points. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of the manga, but also just for people who love cute things.

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Laid-Back Camp (Manga)

Mangaka: Afro

Status: Ongoing (currently 4 volumes)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Rin loves solo camping, and even though she’s only in high school, she’s already made numerous camping trips on her own. The quiet, the beauty of the scenery, the delicious camp food . . . it’s all quite enchanting. On one camping trip, Rin encounters another student, Nadeshiko, who is about as bubbly and enthusiastic as Rin is calm and collected. Yet the two quickly form a fast–if unusual–friendship, texting back and forth, trading camping advice, and sending pictures of places they’ve gone. Sometimes they even go camping together with Nadeshiko’s outdoor club from school, which is fun too, if a different sort of fun from the camping to which Rin is accustomed.

Laid-Back Camp is a very unusual but charming manga. It’s very chill–the “laid-back” in the title is quite appropriate. There’s a seinen flavor to the story, even though the main characters are all high-school girls. And it’s a very cute, fun story revolving around Rin and Nadeshiko in their separate camping-related endeavors (Rin’s solo camping trips to fabulous locales, Nadeshiko’s goofing around with her school club, shopping trips to camping supply stores, and group camping trips) while also developing the unusual friendship between these two. The other side of this manga is that it is, in fact, a camping manga. Which doesn’t mean you have to like camping or be interested in it to enjoy the story; it’s cute and fun either way. But if you are interested, the manga actually provides a lot of information–comparing camping supplies based on cost and utility, describing various sorts of campsites, even going over camp-friendly recipes. It’s pretty cool, giving lots of info without obnoxiously overriding the story. I’ve really enjoyed reading Laid-Back Camp and look forward to reading future volumes of it.

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Love Hina (Manga)

Mangaka: Ken Akamatsu

Status: Complete (14 volumes/5 omnibus volumes)

My rating: 4 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience, mostly for fanservice/nudity

Keitaro Urashima has devoted himself to attending Tokyo University in order to fulfill a half-remembered promise he made with a girl when he was just a little kid. But, being a bit hopeless in general, he’s managed to fail the entrance exams twice now. What’s more, his parents have kicked him out of the house. Lucky for him, his family owns Hinata Inn, which is actually fairly near the university, and he is able to stay on there as the manager . . . only it’s not actually being used as an inn anymore, but rather as a girls’ dormitory. So now, poor Keitaro–who has trouble even speaking with girls–finds himself living in the same building as five girls . . . which should be a dream come true, but with his luck, it’s likely to be more trouble than anything else.

By the author of Negima (which I love), Love Hina is also something of a classic shounen manga, although (in my mind) not nearly so much so as NegimaLove Hina is essentially a new adult romcom, at its core. And yes, the love story between Keitaro and Naru is cute and sweet and funny . . . but a huge part of the manga is these two trying to actually figure out how to tell each other their feelings. It’s kind of too much, especially with all the back and forth about Keitaro’s childhood promise and his insistence on making it into Tokyo University, even without really knowing what he wants to study or anything. Keitaro himself becomes a more interesting character as the story progresses, somewhat, but at the beginning he’s honestly a pretty stereotypical self-insert sort of character. Which I guess fits the ecchi harem sort of story that we have at the beginning. And fair warning, this is definitely an ecchi, fanservice-filled sort of story with lots of hot springs nudity . . . not particularly more graphic than is typical of a shounen manga, just lots of it. The girls in this story are what really makes it shine, though. They are quite the group of characters, with larger-than-life personalities and all sorts of quirks. They’re a lovable group though, and certainly fun to read. I would love to call this a slice-of-life story, and it really is at the beginning; however, the further in we get, the more fantastical things become. You’ve got island princesses and flying turtles and secret sword techniques . . . let’s just say that it gets more bizarre the further you get into the story. And yet, there is definitely content that makes this a proper new adult story as well–the challenges of dealing with complicated emotions, trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, accepting responsibility. These are the sort of things that make this story not just a self-insert harem fest or a quirky fantasy but also a relatable story about growing up. So yes, Love Hina has things about it that I don’t love, but at the same time, it’s still a really good story that’s worth the read.

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