Sunday, September 30, 2018

My favorite anime of the past 10 years 2008-2018

UPDATED 2/20/23 - added "March Comes In Like a Lion" to 2016 and 2017 which I hadn't seen at the time I wrote this original post. But clearly the best of that year.

I replied to a tweet of someone else's top anime of the past 10 years, but I decided to post it here as well so that it wouldn't be lost in the ether. Without ado, here's my list:

2008: Toradora, runner up Minami-ke

2009: Maria Watches Over Us, runners up Sweet Blue Flowers and Kimi Ni Todoke  (what an amazing year!)

2010: K-On!, runner up Arakawa Under the Bridge

2011: Usagi Drop, runners up Anohana, Chihayafuru, Puella Magi Madoka Magica (another amazing year)

2012: Pet Girl of Sakurasou, runners up Love Chunibyo & Other Delusions, My Little Monster, Say I Love You (holy hell what an incredible year)

2013: Chihayafuru, runners up My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU

2014: Sakura Trick, runners up Sailor Moon Crystal, Blue Spring Ride, One Week Friends, Your lie in April (Seriously, it's like every other year is amazing)

2015: Sailor Moon Crystal

 2016: March Comes In Like a Lion, runners up Sailor Moon Crystal, runners up Orange, New Game!

2017: March Comes In Like a Lion, runners up New Game! 

2018: A Place Further Than The Universe

What are your favorites? Please feel free to leave it in the comments.


Mock covers for my Yuri Manga - "In the Morning, I'll Say Hello"

I started writing my own yuri manga in December 2014. I finished the scripts just a week ago. 82 chapters and about 275,000 words later, "In the Morning, I'll Say Hello" is finished. From a writing standpoint. However, I can't draw. Not nearly well enough to do the art myself. I looked into hiring a freelancer but at that cost, there's no way I could afford it, even with a kickstarter fund. ($100/page minimum, 50 pages per chapter, 82 chapters...$410,000 yikes!)

I just don't think an original English yuri manga could ever sell anything close to what it would take for me to be able to self-publish. I'm going to send the scripts to a bunch of publishers, because why not try? You know hope springs...a leak...I mean eternal so I might as well try.

However, in the spirit of doing something with these, here are some mock covers I threw together for the series. I'm printing up some copies of the collected scripts for me, to have something that's physical and not just on my computer.

At least the blurbs on the back covers will give you a sense of the story. Hope you like it. I loved writing it! Just wish I could draw so I could do something with it. I'm open to suggestions.

Eriko and Yuka

Eriko and Yuka

Eriko and Yuka

I wanted the art for each volume to get progressively more angsty. To do that, the color of pink gets progressively darker, the art has (hopefully) more energy, and the imagery becomes more intense. Each of the three primary images relates to something from the text of the chapters from that volume. It was fun doing the art. First time I used my graphics tablet for an actual project. I used a Huion one. Pretty good given how inexpensive it was.

Oh, and don't forget to follow me on twitter @yuristargirl


Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Young Master's Revenge Volume 2 by Meca Tanaka is a step in the right direction (Manga Review)

Meca Tanaka
Meca Tanaka is one of my favorite mangakas. I sadly didn't love the first volume of Young Master's Revenge and yet there were some classic elements of her work at play there, enough to make me pick up volume 2. Volume 2 does improve slightly over the problems from volume 1, but not enough yet.

Summing up my concerns with volume 1: we don't know much about the leads as people. There are lots of actions taken against the female lead which are simply not okay (men lifting her up, kidnapping, trying to crush her feelings, etc...) and although all is played for comedy, still aren't okay. The female lead isn't a strong character and does not exhibit any agency. The plot is pretty cliche and tropey, but not in the good comfort food sort of way. Things I loved, the art, oh the art, I just love her style.

In volume 2, our lead boy Leo Tachibana continues his quest to make Tenma Tsuwabuki fall in love with him so that he can break her heart as revenge for being embarrassed when she pulled down his pants when they were 5 years old. Tenma has transferred to the public school to save on tuition money now that her family is poor. Leo transfers with her. The two schools are fighting and end up in a sports contest against each other, with the student council president of their elite school going up against Leo for both Tenma (as if she were an object, not a person) and the rights to the sports fields the schools share.

The saving grace of the whole two volumes comes at the end of chapter 11 when the student council president of their old school tells Leo that 10 years of hating someone with a plan of making them fall in love is just loving them the way a little boy teases the girl he likes because he doesn't know how to face his feelings. That's the most honest and real thing that has occurred yet in the series.

I continue to struggle with Tenma being pretty much non-existent. Her character isn't developed, she's just a stock character who is smart, pretty, clumsy, oblivious to subtext in conversation, and honestly a bit boring. She's also barely in the series. It really is from Leo's point of view.

What is perhaps most disturbing about her characterization is that at the end of volume 1, Leo reveals his plan to her and she feels so bad that he was embarrassed in the past that she vows to fall in love with him so that he can break her heart. Um...what? Then she goes around this volume taking notes from people on what love is. That would be cute, maybe, if it wasn't for the purpose of letting a boy stomp on a girl's feelings for revenge (which is icky).

Yet, overall, there was some progress in both of them noticing their true feelings for the other. Mostly this was from Leo and he did have some great lines like when others think her smile is scary but he knows that it isn't her real smile and that he alone has seen it. Or when she agrees to strip to stop harassment of other students (not an okay thing) and Leo covers her quickly in his clothes only to get mad at her and say: "Never, Ever do anything that devalues who you are again!" She counters with "I have value?" and he replies "Don't tell me that the girl I've hated for ten years has no value." In his head he then says: "It's okay if your worth is known only to me."

We also get a really sweet kiss on the check from Tenma and a scene during the sports festival where she's dressed as a cute cheerleader and Leo takes off his shirt to cover her, saying "Don't walk around dressed like that" only to finish his thoughts in his head thinking "Except in front of me!" SQUEEE!!! We also get Tenma's first hint that she might be feeling something for him because for the first time, his words of hatred towards her, actually make her feel something. This is all progress I guess, and I'll keep coming back cause I'm a sucker for the blushing scenes.

Also helping to redeem this volume, over its narrative and character development flaws, is the introduction of the female delinquent student council president from the public school. She's falling in love with Leo, is embarrassed and drops her tough act, and is sweetly trying to get to know him. She's a much more appealing and interesting character than Tenma at this point (and more relatable than the pretty-boy 15-going-on-5-year-old Leo). I'm hoping Tanaka-sensei will develop her more.

We still have Tenma being picked up into the air by the other president too much, which again: touching women without their consent is just not okay. We also have an overall hectic pace with lots of cliches and tropes from a plot standpoint. And the overall silliness isn't balanced against true character development and worthy background stories like in Tanaka-sensei's earlier works.

So this volume isn't quite as fraught as the last one, but still not great. It's mostly riding on her coat tails and my affection for her earlier works. That's okay, but I'm hoping the next volume improves the way volume 2 did. Overall, 6/10 (getting there).


Monday, September 24, 2018

The Young Master's Revenge volume 1 by Meca Tanaka is comfortable/uncomfortable (Manga Review)

Meca Tanaka
I just got the first two volumes of The Young Master's Revenge by Meca Tanaka (published by Shojo Beat/Viz Media). Let me start this review by admitting that I LOVE Tanaka-sensei's work. I'm a huge fan of her early series Pearl Pink (which I've reread far too many times) and liked her cute series Meteor Prince. I'm also desperately waiting for the day when her longer series Faster than a Kiss gets translated into English so I can read it. I love her art and character designs. I love her spunky lead heroines. I love her sense of humor mixed with cute romance.

So I have tried very hard to be as objective as possible when reviewing volume 1 of The Young Master's Revenge. As a result, I feel pretty torn as to what I think about it and how to present it.

In one sense, it is typical Tanaka-sensei with great art with her distinctive character designs, a fun and lighthearted sense, and a clear path towards comic romance. In another sense, there were some disturbing things in the setup that undermine her normally strong female character agency.

In volume 1 we meet Leo Tachibana, the heir to a newly hot clothing line started by his father. His childhood friend was the heiress to a centuries old family. As a child he was told to befriend Tenma Tsuwabuki to better position his family with her family's famous department store. They were close and he would always protect the clumsy Tenma during her romping, tom-boyish adventures.

However, during one adventure, he falls into the water to emerge with turtles biting his buttocks. In her zest to help him, she pulls down his pants exposing his bottom to the other kids. He is mortified, but this also happens to be his last day in Japan before going overseas with his parents for 10 years.

During those 10 years, we come to understand that he has worked to make himself irresistible so that he can enact revenge on her for his embarrassment. His plan includes returning to Japan for high-school, making Tenma fall in love with her, and then breaking her heart.

Let's pause. That's awful. A man attempting to manipulate a woman's feelings to harm her is beyond unacceptable. This being a work by Meca Tanaka and all done tongue in cheek, the hope is that we forgive how this would be perceived if it were happening in the real world, and perhaps a few years ago, that would be easier to do. But women have historically been at the sexual and controlling whims of strong, powerful men, and hopefully our society is at a turning point in ending that power dynamic. This setup does no justice to that growing social change.

Moving on, when Leo arrives back in Japan he realizes her family has gone bankrupt, she's being tossed between relatives and so he decides to "save" her by taking her in and making her a servant in his house while paying for her school tuition. His personal assistant has her wear a maid outfit to surprise him (another demeaning situation on top of her newfound dependency on Leo). She expresses nothing but gratitude (so much for agency).

The plot gets even more sour when the school's rich, elite, student council president forcibly captures and incarcerates (yes, denies her ability to leave) Tenma in his mansion. These are old shoujo tropes (the girl being physically carried off, locked up, etc..., but ones that play very poorly now (if ever they played well at all - although see Special A for a unique take on this and an empowered female lead). Tenma is physically captured, barred from leaving, all due to the money and power of a young man who knows no harm will befall him for these criminal acts. Yuck again. Where is the strong, feisty, do it herself, empowered female lead with agency?

All that being said, we get the sense that Leo is not feeling fulfilled by his attempts to hurt Tenma by making her fall in love with him. He ultimately reveals his motives to her as he rescues her from the student council president. I'm glad to know that volume 2 will start with them on more equal footing, but Tenma is depicted as still feeling indebted to Leo and driven to truly befriend him even knowing his horrid plan.

Here perhaps is where this work is most concerning. It's a shoujo manga, from the man's perspective, with a female lead who is manipulated by multiple men, isn't strong enough to rescue herself (although she does try), and even after being told what a horrible thing Leo was planning, still wants desperately to befriend him. Um, she should be running from him as fast as she can IMHO.

Yet, all this is wrapped up in Meca Tanaka's wonderfully silly style and lighthearted approach. It is all presented as a comedy. We know that Leo is really kind at heart and we know the thick-headed Tenma will fall for him. We also know that Leo will eventually, truly, fall for her. But the message this could be sending to young girls and women is pretty horrific: it's okay for someone to manipulate your heart, hurt you, for others to physically restrain you with no police involvement afterwards - particularly because they are super rich and powerful - and when you find out about everything it's a good idea to try and stay close to these people. Ouch.

So this is why I'm torn. On the surface level, it's got everything I love in Tanaka-sensei's work, particularly the art and comedy with the slow-burning/developing romance that will overwhelm their hearts by the end. Yet, when we examine the actual events, characterizations, and setup, it's a pretty old-fashioned male dominant story that isn't actually funny. Given the vibrant female heroine of Pearl Pink, I was hoping for something a bit more progressive here.

Should you read it? That probably depends on whether you are already a fan of her work. If you are, then you'll enjoy this for her characteristic style. If you aren't familiar with Meca Tanaka, and you're looking for progressive shoujo with a strong, empowered female lead, then this is going to prove problematic. I wanted to give this a "recommended" but I think in truth, I have to give the first volume a 5/10 unless you are a fan of hers. I'm definitely going to read the whole series, so i'll keep you posted on how it (and hopefully the characters) evolves. Still love you Tanaka-sensei!


Friday, September 21, 2018

Sugar Princess skated into my heart (yeah, I know) (Manga Review)

Sorry about the headline. I love Hisaya Nakajo's manga Hana-kimi. It's a shoujo classic, and although some of it comes across as dated, the basic love story still holds up. So upon finishing re-reading it recently, I tracked down a copy of her lesser known series Sugar Princess. A two volume series about a young girl and figure skating.

Maya is in her second year of middle-school (8th grade). She and her brother are skating at a local rink and she tries a jump. Even though she can barely skate, a local trainer sees something in her. Naturally, because shoujo, she's eventually paired up with a high-school rising amateur skater and they must place in the top three of a local competition or their small rink will be closed down.

Before reviewing it, here's my ideal checklist for things I look for in a shoujo manga series:
     1) A strong female heroine who isn't defined by the love story or by her eventual partner. She must posses her own sense of self (or develop it) and her arc must be about more than falling in love (she must change, grow, overcome, etc... something in addition to finding a boy, girl or other person to be with)
     2) Classic shoujo-style art. Long lanky limbs, long necks, eyes half the size of their heads. I'm just not a fan of the rounder, cutesier contemporary art that is proliferating (it's fine, just not my shtick).
     3) A story whose plot is also about something more than just two people falling in love. I want there to be things going on and things to do and people changing and growing, and you and stuff.
     BONUS: I love it when side-characters also have depth to their lives and experience their own emotional changes and growth over the series.

How does Sugar Princess do on the check list?

Strong heroine not defined by the love story - check! Maya is flawed but spunky, pretty but not gorgeous, just an average middle schooler who has some unknown talent, is kind and a bit goofy. She's not given much to do in the series (in a scant 2 volumes) but she's engaging and likable and never once mentions love.

Classic shoujo-art - check! I've always loved Hana-kimi for the INCREDIBLY long, lanky bodies. Nakajo-sensei does not disappoint in Sugar Princess, and in fact, it's more reminiscent of the art towards the end of Hana-kimi and thus feels a bit tighter and more mature than that series overall.

A plot about something in addition to the eventual love story? Check-ish. It's just two volumes, so what plot there is is pretty scant. Learn to skate, place in the competition, rink gets save. The end. But there isn't any discernible love story (yet at least, we'll get to that in a bit).

We sadly don't get much time with her friends at school or with her many sisters, with the couch, with another female skater that seems to like Shun, etc...but all appear to be side characters that could have been well developed, so no bonus points.

Basically, this is a 2000s era shoujo manga in every sense of the word. If that's what you want, then that's exactly what you'll get. And it was what I wanted, and it was a delightful escapist series. BUT...

It could have been so much more! If she had had 5-10 (or more) additional volumes so much could have been done. Maybe Shun (the high-school skater) could have started dating one of Maya's sisters only to realize he really loved Maya. Maybe we could have dug into the death of Shun's sister more and the emotional devastation he felt. What would future tournaments look like? We could have explored Maya's friends and family more. Maya could have been tormented by her emerging feelings for Shun. Maybe Shun gets paired up with another skater and we could explore jealousy. Maya could have grown from middle-school to high-school and maybe young adult-hood...

The possibilities were endless and the first two volumes feel like an incredible setup to what would have been a legendary series...except...that's all we get, two tightly scripted and drawn, sweet, volumes. A tantalizing hint at what could have been, enjoyable in their own right, but oh, the possibilities...

Knowing that, if you're a fan of this era of Shoujo, then Sugar Princess is a hidden gem. A strong 7/10 ("recommended").


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Nameless Asterism Vol. 2 inches forward (Manga Review)

Tsukasa Washio Kotooka
With volume 3 coming out in just over a month, I'm finally caught up, having just finished Nameless Asterism Volume 2 by Kina Kobayashi and published by Seven Seas. There will be a lot of spoilers in this review because the plot is pretty simple, so there isn't much to talk about without discussing the basics. Sorry, you were warned.

Nameless Asterism focuses on three middle school girls. Tsukasa is in love with her friend Washio. Washio is in love with their friend Kotooka, and...wait for know where this is going...Kotooka is in love with Tsukasa! By the end of volume 2, Tsukasa knows that Washio likes Kotooka and Kotooka knows Tsukasa likes Washio, but we fail to know if Washio knows who Kotooka likes (and we're sure Tsukasa is too dense to know!). We also have Tsukasa's twin brother who likes to dress like Tsukasa and who is fiercely jealous of the boy who has confessed to Tsukasa. He seems more concerned with his sister growing up and changing and leaving him behind than anything else, but it is still very intense and a bit creepy.

Not a lot happens in this volume other than Tsukasa turning a boy down, Washio getting mad at Tsukasa for trying to help her with Kotooka at the expense of their mutual friendship, and Tsukasa's brother intimating that he's going to keep the other boy away from his sister. I felt like he was hinting that he may cross dress as his sister and "date" the boy to keep him away, but who knows. I certainly hope that doesn't happen. In fact, at one point, I actually through Kobayashi-sensei was setting up the two boys to become a couple (which would be great) and that could still ultimately happen, but it wasn't where this volume went.

The story continues to have no depth of character development, with everything focused on who they like, who they can't tell, and selflessly trying to help the others get closer. The art is simple and cute, and while perhaps befitting a series about middle schoolers, fails to add any drama through visual presentation.

That's ultimately what got me thinking. Maybe I'm not the target audience. Maybe this is geared towards middle and high school students who wouldn't be looking (or at least wouldn't be turned off) by a lack of character development, plot, or substance outside of the romance. Not to say that teens wouldn't like more depth of plot, but just that it might not feel as empty to them as it did me.

I'm also still concerned with the themes and presentation of Tsukasa's brother. Is he gender queer, gender non-conforming, a transfemale, or none of the above? Not that he needs to be labeled, but I would hate for this to be a random character "quirk" rather than a fully explored and realized part of his personality. To be used as a plot device rather than sensitively explored would be a shame. I'm not confident where this is leading.

The overall pace of the story is pretty slow and languid. Even though on the surface the panels move rapidly, the story itself hasn't gone anywhere. Through two volumes, we know about the love triangle, and there is no hint at a resolution or even any forward movement. What would really bum me out is if the series were to conclude without any clarity. Instead, I'm hoping for something more honest and revealing about human nature, some people hurt, some happy, some people together, some people not. Because let's face it, they're middle school children. They probably won't end up as adults with the people they have crushes on in 8th grade.

All that said, this isn't meant to be a dramatic story. It's meant to be cute and sweet and emotionally relatable and it generally accomplishes that. However, it's not super funny, nor super cute, nor deeply plotted, so it comes off as a pleasant way to spend some time, but doesn't rise up as an exemplar for the genre. There also remains something perfunctory about it and yet unsettling in a way I can't entirely pin down, almost like it was a story designed by committee or machine to be pleasing. It hits many of the right notes, but in a clinical way - like the difference between a keyboard and a Steinway, or a sequenced file of a beautiful classical piece and a live performance...

Anyway, Nameless Asterism Volume 2 gets a 6/10. It has room to grow and improve and I hope the creator takes those chances, even if it stays cute and sweet. If you love yuri and need more, go for this volume. If you're more into the quality of art and writing than overall genre, you might have other options for currently published series.


Monday, September 17, 2018

Crossing Time anime should have gone off the rails more (Anime Review)

I'll admit to not watching many of the short-form anime series like Crossing Time. However, I genuinely enjoyed Ojisan and Marshmallow, one of the few short-forms that I've finished. Unfortunately, Crossing Time did not impress me at all nor make me overall hopeful for the micro-genre. It's composed of 12 three-minute episodes all of which play on simple tropes that get old after the first minute.

When I first saw posters for the show and read descriptions of it, I thought it was a yuri anime about two girls and their time waiting for the train each day. Sadly, that was only the first and last episodes. Each episode focuses on a different person or pair, a few appearing in two episodes, waiting for the train at a railroad crossing.

This could have been fine, except that it is entirely unclear what the point of the show is. It's billed as slice of life. I like slice of life shows. Recent examples including A Place Further Than the Universe, New Game! and Flying Witch have all been excellent.

And while I can see why Crossing Time is billed as such, it doesn't even rise remotely to that level of enjoyment nor really feature any life that is identifiable to an actual person. You might be saying: "of course it doesn't, it can't compare to long-form shows." Bah, good writing is good writing, and this show doesn't have it, regardless of length.

Many of the scenes are either stupid or creepy, particularly the one where the middle-age man meets the teenage daughter of an unrequited crush and when she comes on to him, he isn't repulsed and it ends with us fairly certain they will get together. Yuck and illegal.

Others like the brother and sister who only communicate by text gets a little sis-con (or whatever the reverse is as the younger sister seems to have an older brother complex, although he reciprocates as well) and I just don't care for those.

Several others are creepy as well or perpetuate stereotypes that fall flat. The first of two episodes featuring a pint-sized high school boy infatuated with a curvy high-school girl had promise only in that it accurately represents the thoughts going on in high-school boys' heads. But by the second 3-minute episode that had gotten old and had moved to creeper territory pretty overtly. I could go on and on about the other episodes' problems, but you get the drift.

What it should have done with its slice of life concept and the idea of people waiting for the train is feature stories with more drama, nuance, melancholy, grief, etc... You know, actual emotions. But instead it focuses on either cheap lust or cheap laughs.

Is it a parody or satire of anime conventions, with so many different tropes represented? I don't think so. The laughs aren't good enough, and the work not satirical enough. Where Ouran High School Host Club or Monthly Nozaki-kun skewer the genres while being entertaining in their own right, this  is just a limp set of 3 minute time-wasters. Thankfully combined it's less than an hour of my life.

I won't waste any more of your time reading about a show that wasted mine. So for Crossing Time the anime, I rate it a 4/10 (and only that high because of the first and last episodes).


Sunday, September 16, 2018

Links for Sunday Breakfast

I'm tweeting now @yuristargirl but in case you missed it, here are some manga, anime, and book related articles that I linked to this past week. Enjoy!

Even after controlling for genre and other confounding factors, women authors are priced 9% less than men authors:

This review of the new Tomb Raider game hints at a deeper feminist concern for the series, but ultimately didn't develop those themes enough, still an interesting read:

Eric Friedman updates the Yuricon site and provides a great history of its development:

Haruki Murakami talks about short fiction in Japan, great read, found a couple books that I added to my wishlist:

Happy weekend!

Friday, September 14, 2018

Kiss & White Lily for My Dearest Girl volume 1 was uneven but shows promise (Manga Review)

Ayaka and Yurine
I have been resistant to reading Kiss & White Lily for My Dearest Girl volume 1 by Canno (published in the US by Yen Press) for more than a year. I'm not exactly sure why, but the cover art was definitely part of it. It just didn't speak to me. I think it was the use of a lot of tertiary colors and a pretty busy design. For whatever reason, despite my love of yuri that is focused on sweetness and stolen glances, I just wasn't interested.

I finally read volume 1 this week and was pleasantly surprised by the first two chapters only to be let down by the next three.

In volume 1 we meet Ayaka Shiramine, the perfect girl, smart, looked up to, hard working. We also meet her new rival in high-school, the seemingly lazy but crazy brilliant Yurine Kurosawa. For reasons I will discuss, I was really taken by the first two chapters, however...

Chapter three and four suddenly shifts the focus to Ayaka's track-captain cousin and her love interest, the track-manager. While their story was sweet, it was also pretty by-the-books. It did intersect with Ayaka and Yurine's, but wasn't nearly as strong because those two new characters, so far at least, were not nearly as interesting.

The first two chapters pleasantly surprised me because they focused on two fairly flawed characters and their interesting interactions with each other. Ayaka is somewhat rude and obnoxious in private and Yurine treads the line between contempt and boredom with other people while actually being curious and unsure about how to fit in with others.

Ayaka's obnoxious behavior, which she only shows to Yurine and her cousin, Mizuki, sparks interest in Yurine that becomes, perhaps, love. Ayaka is interesting to her in a way others are not, although we get glimpses that what Yurine feels is lack of interest in others may be trouble relating to people.

Ayaka seems both mad at Yurine for bringing romance into what she feels is a rivalry, and yet also seems fairly interesting romantically in Yurine in a tsundere sort of way. She can be both aggressive, pissed, sweet, or lustful all within moments.

I do have an issue with Yurine forcibly kissing Ayaka without consent initially. We wouldn't accept it from a boy/man, so we shouldn't accept lack of consent from a girl/woman either. However, forgiving that social justice/narrative problem, it was really cute to see how Ayaka becomes infatuated with Yurine both as an academic rival but also as a romantic interest. Ayaka doesn't do the whole "am I or aren't I interested in girls?" thing, she just kisses Yurine back when she feels like it and complains about her lazy genius the rest of the time. There is a simple nonchalance about it that works well. This duality is captured particularly well in a sort of romantic scene on the balcony that gets interrupted.

But as I said, after the first two chapters, we spend the next two on a really boring couple. I don't have much to say other than it's ho-hum. Where someone like Milk Morinaga-sensei can take simple, by-the-books, meet-cute, fall in love. happy ending and somehow it feels fresh and winning, this just felt derivative.

Then chapter 5 sort of returns us to the main couple, but they aren't together at all in the chapter and we get Yurine hanging out with another friend. Although this gives us some glimpses at Yurine's complex relationship with trying to befriend others, there isn't much payoff until the very end when Ayaka reenters the narrative. It's a pretty good payoff and the duality of her feelings for Yurine come through. They are a winning non-couple.

Overall the writing feels more genuine than Bloom into You which I'm still struggling over. Narratively though, it's still pretty much only focused on falling in love or not, and no depth or time is spent on other aspects of their lives. There is also no overarching narrative or storyline other than falling in love. When can yuri and LGBTQ characters just fit into a story about something else? I am getting a bit bored of the high-school yuri that doesn't have any plot other than falling in love.

The art continues, like so much other high-school yuri, to have a more modern cute look. I really do miss more traditional shoujo art, but perhaps that's just not where the trends are. For what it is, it's well done. Characters are easily identifiable (good for me because I have trouble with faces in real life) and screentones and contrast are suitably used. There isn't anything extraordinary about it, but it works fine.

In the end, we have two really engaging chapters, two boring chapters, and one muddled chapter that feels like a side story but has a good pay-off in the end. Where will it go in volume 2? I'm willing to give it a chance because of the dynamic between Ayaka and Yurine. But in truth, this volume is a 6/10 ("read with reservations") however it does show promise despite being very uneven.

For another take, you can check out Erica Friedman's review on Okazu: She brings up several similar points and some different ones as well, particularly the absence of men and the "pair em up" approach the series takes (or will over subsequent volumes).


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fruits Basket Another Volume 1 by Natsuki Takaya is a love letter to fans (Manga Review)

I value journalistic integrity above many things. So I would be remiss to start my review of Fruits Basket Another Volume 1 without revealing my bias. Natsuki Takaya is my favorite mangaka of all time. Her series Twinkle Stars is my favorite manga of all time (with the original Fruits Basket a close second). I love her stories, her very distinctive art style, the emotions, everything. So it will be hard to separate my fandom from my views on the first volume of this new series. But...I'm not sure I need to.

From page 1, Fruits Basket Another Volume 1 (by Natsuki Takaya and published in the U.S. by Yen Press - THANK YOU!) seems specifically created for fans of the original Fruits Basket and not as a person's first introduction to that world. While you certainly could read it as a stand-alone, it is so chock full of references (hidden and explicit) to characters, events, and locations from the original series, that it would not, could not, have the same emotional impact without intimate knowledge of that series.

However, let's start by assuming that you don't know anything about Fruits Basket. How might this volume fare? (Here's where I TRY to be objective).

Our story in volume 1 starts with a quick introduction to Sawa Mitoma who is late to school. This immediately initiates a meet-cute with Mutsuki Sohma who saves her from the mean authority figure at the door. He is handsome and princely. We have no idea why he knows her name or saves her, she asks herself the same questions.

In going to seek him out, she steps on Hajime Sohma who is sleeping in the doorway to the student council room. Meet-cute number 2. We come to find out that Mutsuki and Hajime are cousins. Over the course of the four chapters, we meet many other Sohmas and come to understand that they are a vaunted family (remember, we're pretending we are coming at this series fresh).

What is strange is the interest they all take in Sawa, as if they know her already. There are lots of cousins in the Sohma family and they all seem ready to instantly befriend and help her. She is, quite rightly, overwhelmed by the attention.

As for Sawa's character, we know little. Just that, as a child, her friends abandoned her and she doesn't know why. Her mother is away a lot (and in true Takaya-sensei style) doesn't seem to be a very good parent. Sawa doesn't think very highly of herself and is shy and nervous as a result. Yet somehow, this large and mysterious (and beautiful) Sohma family takes her under its wing.

Being new to the series, most of the references to the original series would be easily missed. The pacing is also quite brisk, which is neither good nor bad, but does parallel Sawa's own experiences and exhaustion. The lack of depth of her backstory could make it tough to identify with her, except that Takaya-sensei's art and sensitive writing draw us to her regardless of our prior knowledge.

But of course, we really do love Fruits Basket and know so much about this world already. From that lens, how does Fruits Basket Another fare? We get references to Yuki's uncle, we get people who are look like they could be Rin and Hatsuharu's children, we see the house, we hear about the cliff where Tohru fell, we get told that as the new kids turn teens the Sohma children are told about the zodiac, we see Megumi (Hanajima's younger brother), etc...etc... All wonderful, heart-swell inducing references. We even get hints that Mutsuki might be Yuki's child and Hajime might be Tohru and Kyo's child (I'm hoping anyway...please let it be so!).

So with the abundance of references, the brisk pace, the similarities between Sawa and Tohru (even their look - a little bit), it's hard not to feel wrapped-up-in-a-warm-blanket-with-hot-chocolate-type-emotions. And I think, truly, that was Takaya-sensei's goal. I doubt she would do Fruits Basket Another with a mind toward the uninitiated. This seems like a total love letter to fans and therefore, any minor faults are more than forgiven.

One minor fault, at least to this point, is that Sawa and her backstory seem a bit too much like Tohru's. It also is reminiscent of Shiina's from Twinkle Stars. Takaya-sensei's heroine's have an archetype. That of the chronically abandoned and abused young woman who is strong on her own and a survivor and infallibly kind and will rise with or without a man by her side. Romance enters but is not the reason for the heroine's strength or value (by far the best part of Takaya-sensei's works is that profoundly important feminist message).

But so far, we don't get the sense of depth to Sawa's backstory. However, this is also only volume 1 and what may seem superficial at first, may evolve into a more complex story later. I wouldn't put it past Takaya-sensei but I also wouldn't fault her if she didn't take that this story so far and chose instead to rest on the emotional laurels of our fond love of the original series and just kept it charming without the horrific baggage she normally includes.

But if anything, the biggest fault of Fruits Basket Another may be an aspect of this and the original series that doesn't play as well today as it did 20 years ago. And that is the privilege that the Sohmas have in society. Their family is not only universally smart, talented, and beautiful, but also rich and powerful and positioned above other people simply by their name. We see this in Fruits Basket Another where Hajime is the school council president and Mutsuki is the vice president. They are adored by all the girls. We hear talk of how their family is held in such high regard.

In my official work (in the real world), I work on equity in education. I specifically look at racial disproportionality in the suspension of special education students as well as explicit and implicit bias in education overall. I also spend a fair amount of time promoting LGBTQ rights and awareness of society's continued overt discrimination by race, gender, LGBTQ and other characteristics. Therefore, it is hard for me to read this and not recognize the Sohma's as the 1% that they are. Born to power.

Yet, I do not mean this as a critique of people born into power. No one has any control over what circumstances they are born into. I would never judge a person negatively just because they come from a rich and powerful family. But as a society we continue to position those with privilege above those without. I am definitely not saying that this manga has to explicitly address that or carry a social justice perspective, simply that I can no longer read about this without recognizing privilege for what it is. Hopefully, the Sohmas will use their privilege and power for the betterment of all person-kind.

That is also not a critique of Fruits Basket Another simply because I do not believe it is a work meant to be taken in isolation, outside the already established world of Fruits Basket, and mostly for the enjoyment of its many existing fans. I completely get that broad social justice messages are not the point of this series and don't hold it against Takaya-sensei in the least. Not everything in life has to confront social ills, but at the same time, we can talk about it when they don't as a way of bridging that gap.

That all said (whew!), the art is wonderful. I love Takaya-sensei's art more than any other mangaka. It is unique in several respects. It pays homage to classical shoujo styles, but is quite individual. Her eyes are large but dark and almost always with a vacancy that plays up the longing and hurt in her characters. Her faces are none-the-less incredibly expressive even while their bodies are drawn fairly rigid and simply (hands especially are almost always very rudimentary). Her use of screentones is exceptional, backgrounds are often more ethereal sparkles than distinct places, and mood abounds. I could swim in her art.

For fans of Fruits Basket, Fruits Basket Another volume 1 is a must. In no way does it diminish the original series and instead makes one hungry to know what happily-ever-after looked like for those characters. The art is top notch, the story-telling classic Takaya-sensei in its themes and rhythms. It does feel a little bit like a mirror image, but in the most loving way. However, for those new to her work, the pace might be a bit brisk and the references missed. I'm giving this a strong 8/10 ("highly recommended") as a fan because it delivers more of what she's best at. I can't wait for Volume 2 (and are there more?) to see if this continues to be a simple thank-you to fans or if Takaya-sensei takes it into original and haunting depths like her prior series.

Thank you Takaya-sensei for being awesome and thank you Yen Press for publishing this in the U.S. relatively quickly after its original publication.


Monday, September 10, 2018

Riddle Story of Devil (Akuma no Riddle) only hints at what it could have accomplished (Anime Review)

I'm continuing in my quest to catch up on anime that people like and tell me I'll like too. Riddle Story of Devil is a yuri, torture-porn-light, action, mess-of-a-show that had flashes of promise but ultimately failed to live up to its potential while posing some serious problems.

Let me start by admitting that Riddle Story of Devil does not fall into my normal comfort zone. I tend to like heartfelt rom-com or rom-drama high-school and adult shoujo, josei and yuri. I like them to be character driven with emotional development and character development arcs.

However, as with all the arts (music, movies, books, manga/anime, etc...) I would much rather spend my time on something great in an less-preferred genre than mediocre in my preferred genre (hence why I routinely listen to opera on old records rather than Nickelback - god, they're like the muzak of post-grunge). So anyway, even if Riddle Story of Devil isn't my normal go-to genre, my intention is not to review it compared to what I normally look for in anime, but instead to judge it based on the genre it falls into and its overall artistic merits.

Sadly, it fails in that regard.

Riddle Story of Devil features a host of 12 teenage girl assassins assigned to the same classroom with the purpose to kill another classmate, Haru. She is apparently someone who must be killed and bears the scars on her body from many a prior attempt. She is, of course, wonderful, charming, happy, kind, determined, and hopeful. All we could ever want in a shoujo heroine (other than always talking about herself in the third person - at least in the subtitles).

Upon meeting Haru, one assassin, Tokaku, feels something, maybe for the first time in her own life. Naturally they end up roommates and Tokaku decides to forgo her mission to kill Haru and instead protects her against the other assassins. Each Assassin is allowed one attempt on Haru and must complete it within 48 hours of notifying Haru of their intention. So basically, each episode is one person trying to kill Haru while Tokaku protects her.

At first I had trouble getting into this world. It seemed insane to believe that there were this many trained teenage female assassins, who of course each had their own adults and large clans pulling the strings behind them. And of course, no police ever came during any explosions, carnage, etc... this is when I realized that I needed to judge it not on reality, but on the rules of its world. A world where what mattered was not the logic of the real world, but the internal logic that Haru must die, that there really were secret assassin societies with lots of money and resources, and that somehow, Haru would survive this (because she just had to, alright?! Damn you, making me care about her.).

Now that I was finally in the right mindset for the show, I realized how empty the first 2/3rds of the series was. It was pretty routine. There was no backstory provided, no character development for our two leads, the action scenes were fairly brief and perfunctory, the art was okay but not spectacular, and most disappointing...there was almost no yuri.

There was a bit of implied connection, maybe romantic, between Haru and Tokaku, but I was really hoping to see their relationship develop, to provide more motivation for Tokaku as well as a space for them to both develop as people. But really, it wasn't there. It was pretty much an action show about teenage girls fighting.

Then, in the final few episodes, it showed just how good it could have been if the whole series was as bonkers, crazy, and intense as the final parts. It started with Banba's episode. Seeing her split-personality bust through a wall with a giant sledge hammer and the crazy grin and all the bat-shit-crazy things she says and looks she gives demonstrated that if the show had this energy and chaos from the start that it could have been amazing.

Thankfully this was mostly sustained over the final episodes. We also get some backstory on our two leads, but still almost no real meaningful or insightful interactions between them. They don't seem fundamentally closer at the end of the series than on the first day they met (making the veeeeery ending scene ring hollow). Couple that with the most bow-tying, happy-making, completely out-of-character ending for a series I have ever seen, and it ultimately ended with the same disappointment that it started with.

Aside from not having the demented energy it needed, there were many other glaring writing issues throughout. One of my biggest pet-peeves is the Deus ex Machina. Those "whoops, I wrote the character into an impossible corner and the only way to get them out is to introduce something to solve that problem that had no narrative lead-up or foreshadowing so it comes out of nowhere" fixes happened a few times in the series. Most notably was when Tokaku is about to be strangled to death, and despite fighting the ENTIRE series with only a small knife and occasional handgun, she happens to have a retractable taser in her beautiful knee-high leather boots to save her. Um, the boots really are beautiful though.

But those are far from the only writing problems. For being Haru's sworn protector, Tokaku lets her out of her sight an awful lot. Also, why not just lock Haru up for the year in a fall-out shelter? Haru also likes putting herself into terrible positions with the very people trying to kill her. And, when you hear something in the distance that sounds very wrong, and you are protecting someone, don't run with her towards it, run away (silly Tokaku). Oh, and if you wanted to kill Haru, why would you put a bomb around her neck with a passcode option to defeat it (I'm just saying)? The "backstory" we are given to supposedly justify why the bomb could be defeated with a passcode was emotionally so minimal and stupid as to be belittling to the viewer.

Yet, there were some awesome moments as well. In episode 10, the scene with Haru and the grenades and the elevator was probably the best moment of the whole show. She finally gets to be her bad-ass little self.

Okay art, decent premise for the genre (even if logically stupid), two leads who we could care about (if they gave us any meaningful interactions of substance between them), but a mostly boring side cast of assassins (until the end), writing problems, and a terrible ending that was waaaaaaaaaay too redemptive but still didn't manage to deliver any believability to the Haru/Tokaku relationship and the series ended up quite a disappointment despite a few good episodes (8-10, 12).

I also haven't even begun to dive into issues of feminine agency (given that there were external adults, some male, some female, controlling the girls), the near-torture-porn of constantly putting Haru in danger and her getting cut regularly, the costumes (yes, there was buttcrack on the cyborg girl...yes, there was a cyborg girl), or any other social justice issues, but I've railed on the show enough as it is. And yet...I didn't hate it, I just didn't really like it either. Overall rating: 5/10.


For an alternative take on it, read Erica Friedman's reviews of the two disks of the DVD on Okazu: 
In many ways, I think we're saying similar things, but I have less tolerance for things not being as good as they could have been! :)

Friday, September 7, 2018

Nagarjuna's Middle Way - a tough balancing act between translation and commentary (Book Review)

I usually alternate between novels and buddhist teachings in my evening reading. After starting it once, putting it down, and starting again, I just finished Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura's translation of Nagarjuna's Middle Way published by Wisdom Publications. The translation is easy to read, but the blend of four historical commentaries with the author's own analysis/summary of the commentaries is uneven. It did win the 2014 Khentse Foundation Translation Prize, so that's something.

Some background if you need it: Nagarjuna is a 2nd century Buddhist scholar/practitioner credited with co-founding the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism and for providing clarity on the Prajnaparamita sutras that are central to Mahayana Buddhism. The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (The Middle Way) is his best known text and works as a refutation of other sects' interpretations of the Prajnaparamita literature. It has had a profound effect on many strands of modern Mahayana Buddhism.

For those just beginning (and I'm right there with you, so forgive me if I'm not as accurate as a scholar), Mahayana Buddhism, which is the dominant form through India, Tibet, China and Japan, including such derivations as Zen Buddhism, fundamentally is based on the idea that the reason one seeks a release from suffering is in order to help all other sentient beings to be released from suffering. It is not focused on personal attainment, but on universal liberation for all people.

The Prajnaparamita cannon (The Large Sutra and many shorter ones - typically identified by line length, but also including several others) are devoted to two main concepts: 1) the Bodhisattva path and 2) the emptiness of all dharmas. Nagarjuna's Middle Way is a discourse expounding on the idea of emptiness and seeking to refute what Nagarjuna felt were misinterpretations of the idea of emptiness.

In summary, Nagarjuna believed the Buddha preached that all dharmas (things, ideas, people, etc..) although conventionally real, were empty of inherent existence or intrinsic nature and thus were not ultimately real. He disagreed with various stands of early Mahayana Buddhism who felt only people lacked intrinsic nature. The Middle Way is a series of explorations of the emptiness of all dharmas.

Nagarjuna called it The Middle Way (after Buddha's own term) because he is not saying that nothing exists, which would be nihilism. He is saying that things exist in conventional reality (we can touch things, smell, taste, change, etc...) but that Nirvana alone is the only thing which ultimately exists. That alone is the only thing that has an intrinsic nature that is eternal and not conditionally dependent. However, Nagarjuna does leave open the possibility that there is also no such thing as ultimately existing, that that too may be empty, and thus all we have is conventional reality. Because he rejects the idea that any dharma has intrinsic nature (and thus is indestructible) he also rejects eternalism and thus his philosophy squarely is between the extremes of nihilism and eternalism and so conforms to the Buddha's approach.

In reflection on the Prajnaparamita, I wonder why other schools misinterpreted emptiness because it seemed pretty clear in those sutras that all dharmas (not just people) were empty of intrinsic nature. I wonder if the other schools either a) did not have access to the Prajnaparamita sutras or b) that somehow the translation into English after several thousand years was so informed by Nagarjuna that the lack of clarity disappeared. I'll never know, but find me a good scholar and I'll definitely ask.

Also, when I read the Prajnaparamita sutras, which I really got a lot out of, I had to keep reminding myself that they were situated within the four noble truths, particularly the first two. Many of the Prajnaparamita sutras don't really reference that the reason we learn about dharmic emptiness (is that a term?) is to help us stop clinging and thus stop suffering. One major component of Nagarjuna's Middle Way that I appreciated is that he explicitly makes clear those connections between the Prajnaparamita and the first discourse of the Buddha.

So that's a hell of a lot of background about the text. What about this edition you might ask? The translation of Nagarjuna's sparse prose was well done, however it is so sparse (originally) that it needs substantial expounding. The translators pull excerpts and summaries from four primary early commentaries on The Middle Way, namely: The Akutobhayā, Candrakirti's Prasannapadā, The Madhyamakavrtti by Buddhapalita and Bhaviveka's Prajnapradipa. The authors of this edition make note that they try not to place their own interpretive views into the text and only to report on what the early commentators state to clarify Nagarjuna's text.

Therein lies my biggest struggle with this version. While I respect the work of the original historical commentators, they were commenting based on an understanding of the world (conventional reality) that is almost 2,000 years out of date. Many of the metaphors they use to explain Nagarjuna's thinking just don't make sense any more and were distracting to me. One recurring theme looks at a flame. But it doesn't have the understanding of modern science behind it and so fails to make Nagarjuna's point clearly. I can understand what they're getting at, but it was distracting to have old metaphors. Same with the focus on the "elements" (earth, air, water, fire) and similar constructions that are not based in our modern understanding of how the world works. However, nothing in contemporary science undermines anything Nagarjuna says so it would not be impossible to update the examples.

Yet, when the translators did either summarize or add in their own thoughts, they seem stuck with the traditional explanations and supports rather than attempting to provide a modern set of guides to enhance the text. It would have been a different venture to add their own commentary, and I completely understand why they did not. In that case, I would have rather had all the text from the original commentaries they chose so I could read it with an historical mindset, rather than their summaries and small text-pulls which led me to read it more like I was trying to learn how to apply the teachings in my own life (whereabouts I got distracted by the out-of-date-ness). I will be looking for another translation with a contemporary commentary because I love the Prajnaparamita and I really like Nagarjuna's main thesis, so a contemporary commentary will help me in my own practice. I would also be interested in reading an unabridged version of one or more of the historical commentaries on The Middle Way.

So whether you read this version should be a multi-factored decision. If you're new to Buddhist studies or practice, this probably isn't a great starting point. If you're familiar with the Prajnaparamita literature and want to reflect more on it, this is a good volume (but I'll let you know when I read other translations too). If you want the full historical commentaries, this won't do. If you want a modern commentary on Nagarjuna, look elsewhere. For what it is, it's well done, but I felt that it was somewhat indecisive - not entirely scholarly but not contemporary enough either. A worthy read for sure, but I'm curious what else is out there on this.


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Bloom into You Volume 2 improves the emotional believability of Yuu (Manga Review)

Yuu and Touko
Bloom into You volume 2 by Nakatani Nio and published by Seven Seas picks up after the student council election in volume 1. Where I struggled to really buy-into the two characters and the overall tone of volume 1, I felt that volume 2 was quite a bit more honest with itself and the two lead characters, particularly Yuu.  In volume 1, Touko has confessed to Yuu the first day she met her. Yuu doesn't seem to have any interest in anyone, yet seems stuck to Touko in a strange way. Check out my review of volume 1 for my concerns with the setup. Moving on to volume 2...

Yuu's senpai, Touko is the new student council president and continues to make it very clear she loves Yuu. Yuu continues to be drawn to Touko, but also doesn't feel the hormonal lust that Touko feels. Yet, she does regularly enable Touko and Touko's feelings/actions quite a bit, encouraging a kiss, accepting public hand holding, etc... Despite my concerns with the setup in Volume 1, it actually feels more emotionally honest in volume 2. Part of the support for that comes from Yuu's narration in this volume.

Throughout volume 2, Yuu thinks about her desire to feel something towards anyone. She makes it clear to herself and Touko that she believes Touko is the only person who could possibly like her and so she's content to explore what it means to be near someone with Touko even though Touko doesn't make her heart throb. She wants to feel, but she can't. That was a clue. Combine that with an interesting reference to her sister that might not be her sister and I got to thinking: what is Yuu's background? Will there be some big reveal that will explain this strange enabling of Touko, the complete lack of feelings for anyone, and make sense of Yuu's selflessness in protecting Touko? There is something very unnatural about what Yuu does, yet volume 2 presents it as consistent, and that is perhaps our hint that there is a background story that will justify the uneven volume 1's setup.

If I had a hunch (and this is probably because I've been reading so much on the topic for work) I would guess that Yuu is adopted and/or has had some other significant trauma in her early life. I bet she's created some sort of mental blocks, distancing herself emotionally while also allowing someone to have their way with her even when she's not interested. It feels sort of like reactive attachment disorder (in its low-intensity manga expression). Obviously I have no idea what's really going on yet so that's just arm-chair psychology. But I did feel like Yuu's motivations were more consistent and although still wishy-washy, at least potentially grounded in a plausible emotional reality in this volume. Even though she doesn't have feelings and still lets Touko do stuff, she's pretty clear that she wishes she could feel something for someone and is happy that Touko is the one she gets to push her exploration. There is some sort of affection for Touko, even if it isn't love or lust.

On the down-side, although the characterizations came into better focus, the story is so heavy on Yuu and Touko's "relationship" and particularly Yuu's lack of feelings that it doesn't leave much room for plot or other meaningful aspects of character development or backstory (although we get a little bit about Touko). I like a love story situated in a bigger picture, however Bloom Into You feels a bit myopic. This has been a struggle for me with other series lately too. Maybe it's the school setting, but I have to think there are other thoughts on their minds and things going on that could broaden our understanding of the characters and give them more situations to play off of. Further, in this volume, the focus on eventually putting on a school play, the student council setting, etc...just feels like trope after trope. Yes, they're done slightly differently, but I still want to see more diverse stories in yuri. That doesn't mean this isn't well done, just a comment on its lack of novelty.

The art continues to be nice, serviceable, but not extraordinary and not my favorite type, but certainly appealing and probably many other peoples' type of art. There were a handful of really beautifully drawn character faces that show Nio-sensei's art talent.

In the end, it was better than volume 1 and so I'd give it a low 7/10 or a high 6/10. The series is starting to show some promise and maybe some greater character depth. I do think it's okay that Yuu's confusion is going to last a while, because it really might not be confusion at all but instead a significant sign of what she (might) have been through prior. We'll see if my theory comes to bear or if I'm full of it (probably). I'll keep reading though, because it's not bad, and I am curious about Yuu's psychology.


Monday, September 3, 2018

Nameless Asterism Volume 1 confused me and I don't know why (Manga Review)

Washio, Tsukasa, Kotooka
I'm a catching up on some series I should have started a while ago. Nameless Asterism Volume 1 by Kina Kobayashi and published by Seven Seas (quickly becoming a favorite publishing house of mine) first came out in February 2018 (so I'm about 7 months behind in reviewing it). From what I can tell, the total series runs 5 volumes, two have been published in English with volumes 3 and 4 available for pre-order on Amazon.

I felt the most amazing range of confused feelings reading this volume that I've probably ever felt reading a manga. I certainly didn't expect that, and I certainly don't think the mangaka tried to evoke that. Normally I have one of four reactions to something: love it, think it's okay, think it's awful, or it's just not my thing. I didn't have any of those at all. Instead, I got this strange soup of feelings. I was never comfortable reading it, just my mind roiling and unsettled for no obvious reason. I couldn't get a groove on. I'm going to try and unpack some of that in this review. God help us all.

As summaries go, there's not much to tell. The story focuses on Tsukasa, a first-year middle-schooler, which makes her around 12-years-old (I'll come back to this). She's in love with her friend Washio (love the name!). But Washio confesses that she's in love with their other friend Kotooka. See where this is guessed true Shakespearean fashion, we start getting hints that Kotooka is actually in love with Tsukasa.

The five chapters focus on setting up that love triangle and then move on to trying to hook Tsukasa up with a guy from another school who confesses to her. I secretly believe he is actually in love with Tsukasa's twin brother who goes to her school. Her brother, Subaru, likes to cross dress. At first, I wasn't real happy with how this was discussed by the characters, until I remembered that they're all 12 so they don't really have the vocabulary or life experiences, or personal understanding to have a more nuanced conversation about gender identity. It's presented that Subaru likes wearing cute clothes. Maybe that's all it is for now, maybe as he grows he'll sort through it with greater nuance. I just hope that he's given more depth and chance to explore his gender than he was so far before the series ends.

On it's surface, this should be a pretty good manga series for me. It's a yuri manga, with decent art (sometimes there is some really delicate beautiful line work - although the main work is more cute than realistic - I like the longer, more linear classical shoujo art personally - but no mistaking that Kobayashi-sensei has talent). It's also got a gender-non-conforming character. And it seems to be a story that won't have dedicated antagonists and unnecessary/unrealistic drama (kidnappings, mistaken identity, evil parents, etc...). All that is good. So why aren't I in love with this yet? Why did it make me feel restless as I read it?

Starting with their ages. They're in middle school. I have found that I just haven't been liking the middle school ones much. Particularly as they are 12-year-olds (right? Our 7th grade equivalent?). So rightfully, the depth of their speech and though-processes isn't great. That makes sense from a realism standpoint, but doesn't connect much with me. They don't know themselves well enough to do much more than harmlessly explore superficial feelings. That's normal in real life, but not terribly entertaining or enlightening for a reader. Although it can be, see Wandering Son for a more nuanced take on middle school.

The overall tone and story is only focused on "love." There isn't any time spent on genuine character development of any facet of their being outside of that. That's a bit boring to me. I think it's why I loved Fruits Basket, Twinkle Stars, Kimi Ni Todoke, Honey and Clover, Nana, etc... because although romance is in each, there is so much more depth to the main and side characters. Yet...I also like Milk Morinaga-sensei's works which are the complete opposite. Particularly Secret of the Princess, one of the most fluffy and inconsequential mangas I have read. Why does Nameless Asterism hit me differently? There is something about Milk Morinaga's work that is more unified in its vision. Her work somehow fully embraces its fluffiness to create a complete existence that is so clearly far removed from reality that we love it for the same reasons we might love Hello Kitty and unicorns (at least I do!). Nameless Asterism seems to straddle a line between that fully artistically and narratively cutesy-fluffy work (also, think Sakura Trick, another of my absolute favorites that is totally fluffy and unlike the serious stuff I normally love) and a more realistic, slice of life type story. Nameless Asterism was too much of one and not enough of the other and vice versa, like it couldn't commit.

What about the writing? Aside from the comments above and it's limited narrative scope and character development, it also didn't have any profoundly well written lines. I kept thinking back to Hatsu*Haru volumes 1 and 2 (which I reviewed recently) which had some really well crafted lines in an otherwise by-the-books high-school romance. I didn't get the sense that Nameless Asterism's author had that level of writer's voice. It was fine, there was nothing wrong, but it felt very perfunctory for the type of story it was presenting. That doesn't make it bad, but it doesn't make it revelatory. Just like when I read novels, I care much more about author's craft than the particular genre of the story. I love reading great writing. The writing in Nameless Asterism is fine, but unremarkable.

Basically, I kept wanting to like it, but: 1) the art is well done, but not my favorite style, 2) the plot is focused solely at this point on middle-school love without an overriding fluffy cuteness aesthetic nor the depth of character development of a good slice-of-life thus feeling stuck in the middle style-wise, 3) the writing itself is adequate but not enriching, and 4) I don't know that I can learn much or empathize much with 12-year-olds anymore. It was a tension between wanting to love it but just not loving it or connecting to it.

Maybe I'm just not the target audience? Either way, I kept feeling unfulfilled and even a little claustrophobic reading this volume. It was hard to read multiple chapters at a time, I just wasn't comfortable. I'm giving it barely 6/10 because it is perfectly fine, definitely nice, will appeal to many, but didn't stand out in the yuri genre at all. I'll keep reading at least another volume to see if it elevates itself over time. Either way, I also appreciate that we're getting so much more yuri translated into English. Now, if only I could get some more josei yuri - you know, actual adults leading real lives.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Hatsu*Haru Volume 2 cements this series as one to read (Manga Review)

I really enjoyed Hatsu*Haru Volume 1 by Shizuki Fujisawa and published by Yen Press (If you missed my review, you can catch it here). After reading Hatsu*Haru Volume 2, I can say that this is definitely a winning series for fans of straight-up shoujo high-school romance (ME!). It may not have the emotional depth (yet?) of ones like Ao Haru Ride or the comedy of something like Lovely Complex, but it is sweet, well drawn, and has some well written moments. It will give you what you want and won't make you work for it. A perfect end-of-summer read. Some volume 2 spoilers ahead.

In volume 1, we left Kai (popular boy but suddenly with a single-minded attraction) determined to make the best use of a starlit moment on a camping trip to tell Riko (the sweet, girl-defending, ass-kicking, heroine) how he feels. Unfortunately, he doesn't do it with words! Stupid boys, haven't you learned you can't just get a kiss whenever you want it! Has Harvey Weinstein not taught you anything yet? And thankfully, Riko has the good sense to push him away and accuse him of being a skirt-chaser to open volume 2.

Kai's friends pick up on the fact that he's secretly pining for Riko and set up a group date at the amusement park. We get to see Kai scared of the haunted house and although he frets that his macho guy image has been shattered, it creates a slight crack in Riko's perception (or lack there of) about him. Later there is a group study session and Riko realizes again that there might be something more to this boy who has been annoying her since elementary school. Spoilers over.

As with volume 1, the art in volume 2 is well done, and I'm growing to like Shizuki Fujisawa's character designs more and more. Maybe when the whole story is over, she'll do a bonus chapter or two from Riko's perspective, because I really really like Riko and although I like Kai, I would want to know her better. That is perhaps the one thing we're missing, the feminine voice (perhaps naturally since a guy is our lead character).

Also similar to volume 1 is the occasional line that is so well written that it elevates what is a fairly perfunctory (not in a bad way) story to one that demonstrates Fujisawa-sensei's talents as a writer. In this case, if I were to give you the following setup, what would you think?: Boy and girl are at the amusement park, boy sees the other boy the girl secretly likes, boy sees this other boy with another beautiful woman. Well, since this is shoujo, my first guess was "I bet she'll turn out to be that guy's sister." Right? It's the classic setup of mistaken identity. So what does Fujisawa-sensei give us? The perfect line where Kai says to himself: "Right, so now you're gonna tell me, 'oh, she's my sister.'" Took the words right out of my mouth. This shows Fujisawa-sensei is aware of the genre conventions and is going to go meta by having her character be aware too! It was perfect, and was one of several indications that the writing in this will be sensitive and thoughtful.

All in all, Hatsu*Haru Volume 2 gave me exactly what I wanted from it, the slow development of a relationship between two really likable leads and some excellent art and writing to support it. A strong 7/10.