Mangaka: Taiyo Matsumoto
Translator: Michael Arias
My rating: 4 of 5
During her work as a tour guide at the Louvre Museum in Paris, Cécile is introduced to a mysterious, captivating side of the museum not seen during its open daytime hours. For at night, the watchmen wander the quiet, echoing halls and tell stories of those rare individuals who hear the paintings speak to them. And at night, the cats who live secretly in the Louvre come out to play and bask in the moonlight. As as Cécile becomes more involved in this nighttime side of the museum, she finds two stories inexplicably intertwined–an old night watchman who swears his sister disappeared into a painting when they were children, and a small white kitten who never seems to grow.
Cats of the Louvre is an incredibly unique and unexpected work. For starters, although it is technically manga, the style is more artsy than your typical manga, including detailed depictions of actual works of art at the Louvre. And then, placing the setting specifically in the museum and focusing on one particular tour guide, a couple of night watchmen, a little lost girl, and an odd collection of cats . . . it’s unusual, yet it makes for something of a magical combination, actually. Throwing in a touch of magical realism–again, unexpected, but that really was the final piece that tied everything else together. Like, the plot is all kinds of odd and surreal and a bit meandering, but by the end, I found myself really involved in the story and characters, to the point that I actually cried a bit at a particularly moving scene. One thing that I found truly strange and a but off-putting is the way in which the cats are drawn sometimes looking like actual cats and sometimes as anthropomorphic cat-people, often switching between the two during the same scene. It’s part of the flavor of the story, and it actually makes some of the more fantastic bits make more sense . . . but it’s still just really strange. On the whole, though, I really enjoyed Cats of the Louvre and would recommend it to anyone who likes art, cats, and a certain amount of surrealism in their stories–whether they generally like manga or not.
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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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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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.
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.