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 It’s been a life that has led him to be withdrawn, to hide who he really is and what he sees.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.
Author/Illustrator: Atelier Sentō (Cécile Brun & Olivier Pichard)
Translator: Marie Velde
My rating: 3 of 5
On their visit to Japan, two young folks from France come into possession of an old, plastic camera that–so they are told–is specially made so as to be able to photograph yokai or spirits. Fascinated by the idea, they take pictures at sites reported to be haunts of yokai, tracing down legends around the country. But they won’t know until the roll’s finished and they’re back home whether it actually worked.
I feel like I should preface my review of Onibi by saying that it generally has positive reviews on Goodreads and has even won an award . . . because generally speaking, my own personal review isn’t that great, so maybe I’m totally missing something. I think a lot of my issue is just mistaken expectations. I mean, looking at this book–both the cover and the description–it looks like some cool graphic novel of a couple of kids going around hunting yokai. Which sounds awesome, incidentally. In actuality, this is more of a graphic memoir/travelogue of the authors’ visit to Japan. And that’s cool and all . . . if that had been what I was wanting to read. But being what it was, I was disappointed by an overall lack of plot and character development. You barely even see the main characters’ names mentioned, and their personalities don’t really come through at all–barring their penchant to be curious and seek out yokai legends. So yes, not an actual fictional story proper, more a fantasized adaptation of reality. On the other hand, to give credit where it’s due, when seen as what it is, Onibi does have its good points. Probably the best part is its depictions of rural Japan; you get some lovely landscapes and drawings of small towns. The art is nice in general–pretty typical western graphic novel style throughout. And the actual photographs at the end of each chapter were eerie and cool, much like some of the pics you see in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children–the ones that you know are some trick of lighting or such, but it totally looks like there’s a ghost or something. So yeah, as a travelogue, Onibi is a pretty interesting tour of some of the more rural areas of Japan . . . just don’t look to it for a lot of plot and such.
Status: Ongoing (currently 3 volumes)
My rating: 2.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience. This is at least a hard T+ with lots of fanservice. Fair warning.
Yata is an average student going to school on scholarship and desperately in need of a cheap place to stay. She finds one, but her five roommates are, well, different. As in, not human. But hey, the rent’s cheap. She’ll make it work, right?
I have so many mixed feelings about Mononoke Sharing. By the same author as Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, this story shares the messy-cute art style and the light-hearted slice-of-life comedy with a supernatural element of that manga. But Mononoke Sharing is a lot less serious–not so much the drama and deep backstories and such, more goofy slapstick and waaaay more sexual content and ecchiness and flat-out fanservice. The fanservice aspect is one reason that I didn’t like this so much; it’s just too much. Plus, I’m not so much into that sort of humor. This story has been described as “oddball,” “over-the-top,” and “raunchy,” and yeah, all of those descriptors fit. But at the same time, I love the concept–a human dumped in a house full of yokai, or mononoke as they’re called here, and just doing life with them. As with Miss Kobayashi, the whole otherworldly-beings-interacting-with-normal-life aspect is intriguing and amusing. And the relationships that are developed between these roommates can be quite sweet at times. I also really loved that, while this story included some more commonly seen beings such as a devil and a kitsune, it also included less common ones such as a kappa, a yuki-onna, and even a stretchy-necked rokurokubi. They’re interesting characters, even if some aspects of their character design are so physics-defying as to be frankly annoying and very weird. So yeah, mixed feelings. . . .
Mangaka: Aya Shouto
Status: Ongoing (currently 12 volumes)
My rating: 4.5 of 5
When she turns sixteen, orphan Himari Momochi mysteriously receives a will stating she’s inherited her family’s ancestral home, Momochi House. Not that she thinks to question it much; it’s a true windfall, and she cheerily packs her bags and sets off into the mountains to move in. Only, once she arrives, she finds this mysterious boy Aoi is already living there, claiming to be the house’s guardian, along with a variety of yokai. Because apparently the house is on the border between the human world and the otherworld, a gateway of sorts. Not one to be so easily discouraged, Himari determinedly declares she’s the house’s landlady and tries to get the squatters to leave . . . only to be confronted with the fact that Aoi literally cannot leave the premises since he’s been chosen as the house’s guardian. Well, Himari’s not about to leave either, even if it does mean she has to share her home and deal with whatever weirdness comes through from the otherworld. And believe me, the weirdness is just beginning.
Personally, I find The Demon Prince of Momochi House well worth reading for the gorgeousness of its art alone, especially the color spreads at the beginning of each volume. Absolutely stunning. As for the story itself, well, I’m almost tempted to think of it as xxxHOLiC lite. You’ve got all these encounters with traditional Japanese yokai and suchlike, as well as other traditional folklore, all set in this mysterious house on the border between worlds. Yeah, sound familiar? But instead of this dark josei sort of flavor, you’ve got something much more traditionally shoujo. Bishounen galore–and it’s only Himari’s fixation with Aoi that keeps this from becoming some kind of reverse-harem situation–for one. A tendency for shoujo tropes, gentle romance, and a generally lighter tone in spite of going to some dark places at times. Oh, and Himari is a pretty classic shoujo heroine–innocent, romantic, stubborn, slightly blonde, and a total do-gooder. But she’s pretty likeable for all that. And Aoi’s mysterious dark past (and sometimes present) kind of counterbalances her air-headed sweetness. Shouto-sensei actually does quite a good job at making the characters more nuanced than you’d expect, especially through their facial expressions. I really love Aoi’s variety of expression in particular; well, I love his character in general, so there’s that too. Currently there’s a lot of uncertainty still as far as where the story will go, but it’s shoujo enough that I’m hoping for a sweet, satisfying end. I’m certainly curious where the story will go from here.
Author: Brandon Varnell
Illustrator: Kirsten Moody
American Kitsune, vol. 1
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience
Kevin Swift is what most folks would call a good guy–decent grades, athletic, responsible enough to live on his own while his mom’s away on work, but with enough of a geeky (even otaku) side to not be a total square. Poor guy really does have some of the worst luck though, or maybe he just has some unfortunate weaknesses. Like his soft spot for small, furry animals. Or his inability to talk to girls (including his crush/childhood friend Lindsay) without blushing and stammering, insane nosebleeding, and possibly passing out. Unfortunate, and likely to get worse when in an act of kindness Kevin brings home an injured little fox . . . that has two tails and a remarkable healing ability. Because the next day, in place of the adorable little fox he finds a naked, gorgeous young woman by the name of Lillian who proudly declares herself a kitsune–and his mate. Poor Kevin!
Having already read the second volume of this hilarious series, A Fox’s Tail, I was definitely looking forward to enjoying the first volume, which I did. A Fox’s Love is an amusing American take on the Japanese ecchi shounen romcom (think stories like To LOVE-Ru and Rosario + Vampire). It definitely follows in the footsteps of these stories, complete with hapless but relatively normal protagonist, improbably sexy and clingy female, tons of humor, and at least an equal part ecchiness and fanservice. Not to mention lots of fantastic references to anime, manga, games, and other geeky stuff. The flow of the writing fits the story very well, having the easy-to-read light novel sort of feel while still being distinctly American in tone. I also love that, while the story obviously references lots of other stories, sometimes even parodying them, it never loses itself; Kevin and Lillian are always very distinctive characters, however improbably those characters may be. And that very improbability is a lot of what makes the story so very funny. That and the various manga/anime tropes and fourth-wall-breaking that get thrown in. A negative (for me; others might find it a positive) is that this volume is very full of fanservice, some of it kind-of explicit–which is kind of promised on the cover, so no surprises there. Just be aware of that going in. One final note is that Kirsten Moody’s accompanying artwork is fantastic, accentuating the light-novel style of the story beautifully while presenting the characters in a way that is very consistent with how they are shown in the story. On the whole, I think that for those who enjoy stories like To LOVE-Ru and Rosario + Vampire, A Fox’s Love is a very amusing and enjoyable venture into this sort of story in an American, slightly parody-like flavor.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book from the author, which in no way alters the contents of this review.
My rating: 5 of 5
Young Chihiro is not only bummed out about moving, but is slightly scared as well. When her family gets lost taking a “shortcut” to their new home (thanks again, Dad), her life takes a serious turn for the scarier as Chihiro finds herself in an Alice-in-Wonderland-like world of Japanese spirits, her parents transformed into pigs, and herself quickly becoming translucent. Haku, a local spirit boy who seems to know her, takes Chihiro under wing, but when it turns out that he’s the head henchman under the evil ruler of this place, you have to wonder if he’s really looking out for Chihiro . . . ?
Spirited Away is a masterpiece of a movie. The story is complex and very Japanese–kind of a zen version of Alice in Wonderland, really. The character development in Chihiro is excellent; it’s fascinating to watch her grow from a whiny brat to a brave girl who is willing to work hard and risk a lot for others. The animation in Spirited Away is incredible–there’s an intricate attention–to detail, light, texture, and even the way people actually move–that is absolutely breathtaking. Seriously pay attention to the water . . . it’s not just some puddle of blue, but actually looks like real water! The creativity and detail put into the plethora of side characters and settings is remarkable as well. Might I also mention that the soundtrack is wonderful–great for setting the mood, plus just absolutely beautiful. And the English dubs are actually good too, which is a shocker; usually anime dubs are terrible (in my personal opinion). Basically, Spirited Away is one of my favorite movies ever, possibly my absolute favorite. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.
Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki/Produced by Toshio Suzuki/Music by Joe Hisaishi/Starring Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Takeshi Naito, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Tsunehiko Kamijō, Takehiko Ono, & Bunta Sugawara