Mangaka: Natsuki Takaya
My rating: 3.5 of 5
As one of the outcast “Nameless” (her society’s term for orphans), Kotobuki has had to make her own way in the world–which she’s done by becoming a fairly skillful thief. The one person who always seems to be able to catch her in the act is an elite member of the military by the name of Raimon. Only Raimon seems completely uninterested in arresting her; he’d rather gaze at her adoringly and maybe offer her a candy bar. Eventually, Kotobuki decides to take the high road and become an upstanding citizen who works for a living . . . if only it were that easy to get a job! Lucky her (?) Raimon decides to quit the military and become her traveling companion, providing when she can’t find work. It’s got to be love (or at least obsession).
As a huge fan of Fruits Basket, I’ve been trying to find more of Takaya-sensei’s manga to try. Tsubasa is one of her earlier works, and it shows in somewhat more cliche plotlines and characters, as well as in a slightly less mature art style. But there are a lot of things about this manga that simply scream Takaya-sensei as well: the deep, dark pasts; the sweet, innocent girl who changes everything; the unexpected romances; the insane obsessions. Really, this is quite an enjoyable shoujo sci-fi manga–best for a bit older audiences, though. Partly because of the nudity and ecchiness at parts; moreso because of characters like Raimon who have really unhealthy motives that would be really bad for younger kids to read about and imitate. I do find it interesting that, although it’s called Tsubasa, the tsubasa don’t actually become a serious focus of the story until about halfway through; until then it’s much more slice-of-life focused on Kotobuki’s job search and her growing relationship with Raimon. But I do have to say that, when they do come in, the tsubasa are one of my favorite parts of the story, especially Rikuro. And, typical of Takaya-sensei, there’s a huge cast of unexpected and interesting characters–including an unlikely gang of thieves who strangely remind me of Team Rocket! All told, I think Tsubasa: Those With Wings is a good manga for people who already like Natsuki Takaya’s writing to try–and bonus, it’s only three volumes long, so it’s a pretty quick read.
Mangaka: Meca Tanaka
Alternative Title: Sara no Ue no Kanojo
My rating: 3.5 of 5
On a mountain overlooking a remote village, a dragon god lives in human form, eking out an existence on the small birds his toad-spirit servants can bring to him. Every fifty years, the village sends a human sacrifice up the mountain for him to eat, allowing him the energy to take true dragon form and theoretically bringing prosperity to the village. But this time, the village’s offering is entirely unacceptable–not a plump, properly terrified citizen. No, they send a scrawny, blank-faced orphan girl who’s spent her entire nameless life knowing she would end her life as dragon food. Completely dissatisfied with this turn of events, the dragon refuses to eat her and even allows her to stay with him, naming her Tsubame (“swallow,” hmm?) and choosing to continue living off of the mountain birds. But the foolish villagers are, of course, unwilling to leave matters as they stand. . . .
Meca Tanaka’s manga are usually super cute and sweet shoujo stories. Girl on a Platter is a very interesting–and very short–one shot manga, and yes, in a way it is cute and sweet. But it’s also immensely more dark and disturbing than her usual. And, while many of her stories involve a fantasy element, this is the first that I’ve seen that’s completely removed from normal life, choosing rather to delve into more traditional Asian mythology. It’s interesting, for sure. I actually like the characters–they’re somewhat enigmatic and complex, but they don’t have outstandingly annoying traits and the mystery adds to the intrigue. They’re really pretty too; well, Tanaka-sensei’s art is always gorgeous. I think the biggest negative for this story is just that it’s so short. The ending is extremely open, to the point that it can be confusing, and in general there’s just not enough time to really develop the story. But for all of that, I think it was enjoyable. If you’re interested in a slightly darker shoujo fantasy, and especially if you’re also short on time to read, I think Girl on a Platter would be a good choice to try.
Note: As is sadly the case with many (most) one-shots, this manga does not have an official English translation. However, there are some quite decent fan translations available if you look.
Mangaka: Bisco Hatori
My rating: 4 of 5
Chiyuki dreams of seeing a thousand years of snowfalls, all the while knowing that she’ll probably never live to even see her eighteenth because of a congenital heart condition. When she meets eighteen-year-old Toya, a handsome vampire whose bite would give her a thousand years of life by his side, it might seem that Chiyuki has found the ideal solution. The only problem is that Toya is too nice to doom anyone to living that long–and that he hides that niceness under a bristly, snappy exterior. Add to the mix happy-go-lucky, flirtatious werewolf Satsuki and impudent bat-servant Yamimaru, and mayhem, conflict, and all-around fun are bound to follow.
For being Hatori’s first serialized work, Millennium Snow is quite nice. I know some of the plot elements sound like a Twilight rip-off, but the two stories are actually quite different. The outstanding feature of Millennium Snow is the characters: Toya’s almost-tsundere-ness is charming, and the Chiyuki-Yamimaru pair’s impudently picking on him is hilarious. Personally, I’m a big fan of Satsuki, probably because he reminds me a lot of Tamaki from Hostbu. I think this manga is significant in that it experienced a 10-year hiatus between the first two volumes and the final two. The art style of the first two volumes is very similar to the earlier sections of Hostbu–a little immature, but pretty, expressive, and very Hatori-san. As for the final two volumes, I think the manga has benefited from the time and experienced gained from Hatori’s work on Hostbu, although there’s a definite style-gap between the new volumes and the first two. It’s cool though to see these great characters in Hatori’s pretty, updated style. I think the story and characters are consistent across the volumes enough to carry it even if the art is definitely changed. Definitely recommended, although I might recommend reading some of Hatori-san’s other works first.
Mangaka: Matsuri Akino
My rating: 4 of 5
Deep in the heart of Los Angeles’ Chinatown is a petshop, run by an enigmatic individual calling himself simply “Count D”. But this is no ordinary petshop. It is rumored that you can get any creature imaginable there: normal pets, illegal imports, even creatures believed by most to have never existed. Stranger still, for some buyers, their pets appear to have human form–but only sometimes or to certain people. Regardless, the pet and the buyer are always perfect for each other, specifically chosen to suit each others’ needs, or D won’t sell. Furthermore, each sale comes with a specific contract . . . one that must be followed carefully, or horrific results may ensue. Following the trail of some of these horrific results back to Count D’s petshop, detective Leon Orcot is determined to put D behind bars–if he doesn’t end up becoming fast friends with him first. Bother that mysterious count and his innocent-seeming charm!
I think Petshop of Horrors is a manga that delivers a lot more than it promises. At first glance it seems like, well, a horror manga. And it can be that at times; there are certainly episodes that involve super-creepy circumstances and lots of blood and gore. But as the story progresses, it becomes more and more about character and story development, even though the chapters are still episodic, each chapter featuring a different buyer and a different creature. The plot is interesting but mysterious–it seems like you’re going to find out more than you actually do in the end, and I really like that about this manga. I hate it when stories try to explain too much and end up with some super-lame explanation; it’s much better to leave a lingering sense of mystery, and Petshop of Horrors does that exquisitely. I honestly feel that the biggest draw of this manga isn’t the horror or the weird creatures at all; rather, it’s the development of the characters. Seriously, D has got to be one of the most enigmatic individuals ever–he reminds me a lot of xxxHOLiC‘s Yuuko Ichihara–and also one of the most complex people. I think one side of his character that’s particularly fascinating is the fact that he doesn’t see from quite a normal human perspective–if in doubt, he sides with the animals, for sure. Mixing D’s unusual character in with that of detective Orcot is sheer brilliance, Orcot being the upright, bright, American sort of guy he is. One facet I found unusual and interesting is that this manga is set in the U.S. . . . convincingly! I’ve read other manga with small sections set in the States, but they always feel extremely artificial and unresearched–at least to an American reader. This one doesn’t stray too far in weird directions, but is convincing (other than the fact that there’s a lot of weird fantasy thrown in with the petshop itself). On the whole, for older teen and up readers (because seriously, language and horror are definitely present here), I would definitely recommend Petshop of Horrors as a fascinating, unique, and beautiful manga.
Mangaka: Hisaya Nakajo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ever since early childhood, Tomo has had a reputation as a pretty girl . . . which might be fine, except Tomo’s a boy. Even now in high school, Tomo continues to receive confessions from other guys, all of which he refutes fiercely. (Has he never considered that maybe, if he didn’t react so strongly, he wouldn’t be teased so much?) Things begin to take an unexpected turn, however, when he receives (what seems to be) a confession from the number one most desirable single guy in the school, Yoshida-kun. This handsome, quiet, stubborn guy dogs Tomo all the way home, where he discloses another–more startling– confession: he’s a vampire, and he needs a human partner soon or he’s going to go bloodsucking ballistic on anyone around him. And he wants Tomo to be his partner. . . .
Wild Kiss is actually a one-shot that was released with Hana-Kimi as an omake, but I feel like it deserves a review of its own. It this were ever turned into a full manga series, I would devour it; I think it has the potential to be even better than Hana-Kimi. The story is, as a one-shot, naturally simple and pared down to a minimum, but even in this state Nakajo-sensei has included significant backstory, supporting characters, etc. Plus, Tomo and Yoshida’s relationship is a nice (super mildly shounen-ai) blend of drama, comedy, and possibly the barest buds of romance. But really, at this point, it’s more a dramedy than a romance–and it’s nice that way. The art is classic Nakajo-sensei, very similar to that of Hana-Kimi–in other words, cute/pretty but not overdone, the sort of shoujo art that would work even in a non-shoujo manga. I would definitely recommend Wild Kiss to anyone who enjoys cute (mildly shounen-ai) manga, fans of Hana-Kimi, and basically anyone who likes shoujo manga.
Mangaka: Kiyohiko Azuma
Yukari-sensei’s class has some interesting characters in it, but the truth is, she might just be the most biggest “character” of them all. She’s not exactly the most responsible teacher in Japan. At least this year she’s got Chiyo in her class, an adorable 10-year-old prodigy who’s jumped up to being a freshman in high school–and who’s bright enough to be a good tutor for the other students. On the other hand, there’s Tomo–she really should think before she acts. Or opens her mouth. Actually, thinking period would be a good start. Ditto with Osaka the transfer student from . . . you guessed it, Osaka. Although with Osaka, it’s not that she doesn’t think so much as that everything she thinks of is really ditzy. Yomi-san is Tomo’s friend from back in grade school, but I still don’t know why she puts up with her; sometimes I think Yomi must be a bit of a masochist although in most other ways she’s pretty smart and capable. Then of course, there’s Sakaki–tall, athletic, quiet, and generally too cool for words. You’d never guess what a soft spot she has for everything small and cute–especially kittens! Somehow, these girls become friends their freshman year, developing an everyday sort of friendship that’s warm and funny and just as unusual as the girls themselves.
Azumanga Daioh has got to be one of the best manga ever written. Although, is it technically manga, since it’s written in 4-panel vertical comics? Not sure on that one, but I really love the way the panels are each episodic, yet they flow into each other seamlessly to create a cohesive whole spanning the girls’ entire three years of high school (including some wacky summer breaks). This is one of those stories that it’s nearly impossible to explain what makes it so amazing. I mean, the characters are wonderful. That definitely is a big part of it. But I think it’s also that this is just an everyday slice-of-life story. Nothing crazy happens. Nobody dies, gets a rare disease . . . nobody even has a boyfriend! It’s just the normal lives of these girls. Yet somehow Azuma-sensei captures the touching and funny aspects of daily life in just the right light, drawn out by the unusual quirks of the students, so that they are immediately captivating and hilariously funny. I can’t read a chapter of this manga without bursting out into laughter–out loud, which can be embarrassing! Yet the story does deal with real problems that high-schoolers face regularly–weight and self-image, friendship, grades, feeling left out, and more–in a way that gives the story weight, bridging the gap from a flighty shoujo story to a mature josei one. I’ve shared this manga with friends young and old–my dad, a female college friend, and my teenage brother to mention a few–and they’ve all loved it. Truly, Azumanga Daioh comes with my highest recommendations to basically everyone.
Note: I love the randomness of the title, which comes from squishing the author’s name “Azuma” together with the word “manga” and sticking on “Daioh” from the magazine it was originally published in, Dengeki Daioh.