Manga Review: Master Keaton Vol. #6

I became an instant fan of Naoki Urasawa in 2004 when I saw the Monster anime. Psychological thrillers are definitely NOT my cup of tea, but he had me hooked with his combination of realistic artwork and gripping plot. As such, I was thrilled when Viz Media decided to release a translation of an earlier Urasawa action/adventure: Master Keaton. Read on for the review of Volume 6. (For my reviews of previous volumes, click here.)

Back cover blurb

Taichi Hiraga Keaton dreams of someday being the archaeologist who excavates the Danube Valley Civilization. Reality doesn’t seem to be working in his favor, however, as being an insurance investigator keeps him busy and always in peril! With no rest in sight, what’s in store for Master Keaton next?

The Review

After the lengthy Leopard’s Cage arc in Volume 5, Master Keaton returns to its usual pattern of short, stand-alone adventures. While one chapter (“The King’s Tears”) shows him pursuing artifacts during his free time, a paying job in archeology continues to elude him. As such, his role in Volume 6 is predominantly that of Lloyds insurance agent and investigator. Most of these cases have little to do with ancient history. Instead, Keaton’s investigations involve the current events of his era, such as ongoing tensions between Ireland and Britain, and two chapters (“The Winds of Cornwall” and “The Adventures of After-School Detectives”) are purely detective stories.

As usual, Keaton’s ex-wife doesn’t show up, but Keaton encounters various former classmates and colleagues as he travels Europe on his assignments. “The Code of Blood and Honor,” the longest arc in this volume, is a two-chapter mystery that involves the murder of an old schoolmate who just happens to be the son of a Mafia don. So in addition to having a “Godfather” flavor, the case has personal meaning to Keaton. To make it more personal, an assassin from one of Keaton’s earlier adventures returns, and he’s bent on revenge. In the “The Winds of Cornwall,” Keaton investigates the suspicious activity targeted toward a childhood friend, which a second mutual childhood friend is also investigating. Unlike the gripping plot in “The Code of Blood and Honor,” “The Winds of Cornwall” meanders all over the place, and even though it does involve deadly threats and organized crime, the story’s more about what Keaton’s friends think of him.

As for what strangers think of Keaton, most continue to view him as an eccentric or an annoyance. “The Adventures of After-School Detectives” is another murder mystery, but it’s also one of the funnier stories. Three school-age detectives are also on this case, and the way they pick at Keaton’s performance as an investigator is fairly amusing.

Keaton is in Europe the entirety of this volume; we only get one brief glimpse of his daughter and dad celebrating the holidays without him in Japan. However, both of them do travel to London to see him so we get our Yuriko- and old man Hiraga-centric chapters. In both these stories, the Hiragas render a service to strangers, and in Hiraga senior’s case, his primary motivation is his skirt-chasing tendencies, which we’ve heard plenty about but are kind of awkward to watch in action.

Extras include the first pages of Chapter 4 in color and a sound effects glossary.

In Summary

Keaton is all investigator in this volume. No teaching assignments or requests from the SAS. Just one Lloyds case after another with a couple personal adventures on the side. Not a lot of ancient history, but if you like tales of organized crime against a backdrop of Europe right after the fall of communism, this volume will deliver.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Sword Art Online: Mother’s Rosary Vol. 001

Sword Art Online was undoubtedly one of the most popular anime of 2012. Based upon a series of light novels by Reki Kawahara, SAO’s near-future characters, gorgeous fantasy setting, and life-or-death stakes drew an enthusiastic fan following. Yen Press has released Volume 1 of the Sword Art Online: Mother’s Rosary manga adaption, and you can read on for the review. (For my reviews of  other Sword Art Online manga, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

Kirito and Sinon’s battle with Death Gun is over, but mere weeks later, something strange is afoot in the next-generation VRMMO ALfheim Online. A new duelist with a custom sword skill is defeating all comers–including Kirito! But when Asuna goes to face this duelist, she receives something she never expected: an invitation to an exclusive guild! But what is their aim? The Mother’s Rosario arc begins!

The Review

Mother’s Rosary, like Progressive, is an Asuna-centric series in the Sword Art Online franchise. This story, however, takes place well after Aincrad. In fact, it takes place after the events of GGO. As such, we see Asuna not as “The Flash” nor the damsel in distress at the top of the World Tree but as a teenage girl living life in the real world.

Unfortunately, despite all it took to get her out of SAO and then ALO, Asuna doesn’t return to a happily ever after. Certainly, she has Kirito’s devotion, but his love isn’t sufficient to erase her problems. Rather, another person’s lack of love threatens to negate the good in Asuna’s life.

Enter Asuna’s mom, otherwise known as the Queen of Tiger Moms. You’d think that she’d have sympathy for a daughter that got trapped in multiple life/death situations and narrowly avoided an arranged marriage to a creepy psychopath. But no. Rather, she acts as if the damage that their family’s company suffered on account of Sugou’s diabolical scheme (in Fairy Dance) is Asuna’s fault. While Mrs. Yuuki’s a bit extreme in her lack of empathy, her insistence on controlling every single aspect of Asuna’s life is bound to strike a chord with a lot of readers.

As such, New Aincrad, which is based off the virtual world that once held Asuna captive, becomes her place of escape. Even so, she can’t fully forget her problems, and the creators do a wonderful job at expressing her despair at the disparity between her real and online selves.

And that’s the situation when a mysterious new duelist arrives in New Aincrad. Enticing other players to fight with the prize of an eleven-hit original swordskill, Absolute Sword defeats all comers with ease. When even Kirito fails in his attempt, an intrigued Asuna decides to try the challenge herself.

Her reaction when she discovers Absolute Sword is a cute girl is a bit overdone; after all, Kirito passed for a “cute girl” in GGO. But then the narrative dives into the more important questions of why Absolute Sword is so strong and what she’s trying to accomplish. Absolute Sword quickly decides to include Asuna in her plans, and while those plans don’t require Asuna to put her life on the line, impossible is a pretty good descriptor for Absolute Sword’s goal.

By the way, the artwork is done by Tsubasa Haduki, who produced the Fairy Dance series. So if you liked Haduki-sensei’s fairy characters, you’ll see a lot more in Mother’s Rosary, although they’re now flying against an Aincrad backdrop.

Extras include embedded Background Guide notes, extra episode, afterward manga, and the title page and table of contents printed in color.

In Summary

The back cover touts SAO’s tagline: This might be a game, but it’s not something you play. However, this particular arc might be the closest to simply “playing” in the SAO franchise. There’s no “game of death,” no players forcibly trapped in a coma, no real world PK-ing. And that might just make this storyline the most relatable of the bunch. Asuna’s still showing some impressive swordplay, but as she embarks on a new ALO quest with new friends, her struggles are shaping up to be internal rather than external ones.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Spice and Wolf Vol. #12

Spice and Wolf is a wildly popular light novel series that has spawned off an anime, an Internet radio show, and a manga series. While its European medieval setting is typical of high fantasy, this series has  a unique bent to it. Rather than swordfights and magic, the plot focuses on economics, trade, and peddling in a way that skillfully blends adventure and romance.

Yen Press has released the Volume 12 of the Spice and Wolf manga, and you can read on for the review. (For my reviews of previous Spice and Wolf releases, click here.)

Back cover blurb

Lawrence and Holo’s long journey to Yoitsu is finally approaching its conclusion. Having arrived in the town of Lenos, they encounter a jolly bookseller named Le Roi–but is he truly the fool he seems? They’re closer than ever to laying their hands on a forbidden tome whose contents threaten to transform Holo’s homelands, but in the world of merchants, sometimes the only one you can trust is yourself…

The Review

Volume 12 brings a number of past characters back to the story. Not only do we have both deaconess Elsa and her loyal friend Evan from the village of Tereo, but members of the Rowen Trade Guild’s Kerube Branch also show up. Even Eve figures into the plot, although she doesn’t actually show up in person. With Yoitsu in striking distance, it’s as if the creators want to remind readers of the varied encounters Lawrence and Holo have had in their journey.

The business aspect of this arc also combines several elements introduced in earlier chapters. At the heart of it is the forbidden book that threatens Holo’s homeland. As it turns out, the bookseller with access to the book is an acquaintance of Elsa’s, the funding comes through Lawrence’s Kerube guild associates, and the fallout from Lenos’ fur riots a few volumes back creates the particular conditions required for the deal to work. However, there is a new development in the mix: word of a mercenary band bearing the name of one of Holo’s packmates.

Whereas the ultimate solution to other Spice and Wolf schemes get laid out gradually, this one comes in a massive info dump. The logic is clear to be sure, but its presentation is abrupt. Instead, the creators spend more time dwelling on the emotional turmoil that leads Lawrence to concoct the scheme, which romantically minded readers might prefer anyway.

Lawrence’s attraction to Holo has always been kept in check by our wisewolf’s cutting remarks and his own pride. Now with their destination looming close, he must face the fact that he doesn’t want to part from Holo. Then the possibility of Holo reuniting with one of her old packmates adds jealousy to the equation. As usual, Lawrence suffers most of the angst while Holo plays it cool. Part of this is because Elsa, in a somewhat out-of-character moment, practically forces Lawrence to use her as a confessor. Even so, we get two instances where Holo shows her softhearted side, which should be plenty to keep the Holo/Lawrence fans happy.

Extras include the title page in color and closing remarks from the creators.

In Summary

For a transaction dilemma that takes an awful long time to set up, the resolution is rather quick. However, Lawrence/Holo fans might be more interested in the emotions stirred up by the deal, and Volume 12 delivers plenty of Lawrence’s internal angst. He might not be the devout sort, but he spills it all in an unusually candid and heated confession to Deaconess Elsa.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Behind the Scenes Vol. #01

There are a LOT of anime and manga centered around glamorous idols and movie/TV stars, but what about the humble folk that do the grungy, tedious work behind the camera? The unseen teams charged with creating film sets, costumes, and props are the subject of Bisco Hatori’s Behind the Scenes!! Viz Media has released Volume 1, and you can read on for the review.

Back cover blurb

It’s two months into Ranmaru’s college career, and if he’s learned one thing, it’s that he’s really uncomfortable around other people. But when he stumbles into a zombie mob attack, he’s totally forced out of his comfort zone! Of course it’s just a movie shoot, but when he wakes up from his ignoble faint, he’s been whisked away behind the scenes with the Art Squad! Could this group of weirdos be what Ranmaru’s been looking for all his life?

The Review

Hatori-sensei is best known for Ouran High School Host Club, and her latest English-language release is another club manga. However, Behind The Scenes!! is not a story of handsome bucks in the spotlight. Rather, it is about the unseen and often unappreciated individuals that work off camera in the world of film.

Our main character is Ranmaru Kurisu, a first year humanities and sciences major at Shichikoku University in Tokyo. A wimpy fisherman’s son from the boonies, Ranmaru grew up being picked on, never participated in school clubs, and has a massive scapegoat complex. (His eternal catch phrase is “I’m sorry.”) He’s the type of character that gets annoying really fast. Fortunately, within two pages, he literally runs into the Art Squad when he ruins a student film shoot. As payback, Goda, the Art Squad president, forces Ranmaru to help with another prop project and discovers that Ranmaru’s actually quite talented. In fact, all the mishaps in Ranmaru’s life came from others trying to take advantage of his skill at crafts.

Ultimately, this is the story of the village misfit finding a place where he belongs and evolving. Ranmaru needs a lot of help in that respect, and that’s where President Goda comes in. Whereas Ranmaru’s a limp noodle, Goda’s a blazing sword of a personality. He’s a perfectionist with no qualms about bullying others because he sets insane standards for himself. Most Goda/Ranmaru interactions consist of Goda belting orders and Ranmaru freaking out. Fortunately, we have the four other quirky members of the club to provide additional breadth of emotions.

Because they are university students, their schedules are much less structured than a high school student’s. As such, Art Squad members spend seemingly all their time slaving on sets and costumes for the four university film clubs. And even though they’re only college students, the directors have big time egos. Film is a collaborative endeavor, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the clashes that arise between them and the Art Squad. As such, story arcs are structured that the film clubs play the part of antagonist, making one outrageous demand after another. However, Goda takes those demands as challenges, and as the club tackles them, Ranmaru learns what it’s like to be a part of a team while readers get a peek into the more practical aspects of filmmaking.

Extras include character profiles, embedded notes from the creator, glossary, and author bio.

In Summary

The Art Squad may play a critical role in their school’s films, but they’re hardly the glamorous type. They’re a high-energy misfit group, the perfect place for a spineless artsy-craftsy misfit from the sticks to brandish his skills. If you’re interested in fun comedy with quirky characters and a lot of snark and screaming with film and art jargon thrown in, give Behind the Scenes!! a try.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Sword Art Online: Progressive Vol. 004

Sword Art Online was undoubtedly one of the most popular anime of 2012. Based upon a series of light novels by Reki Kawahara, SAO’s near-future characters, gorgeous fantasy setting, and life-or-death stakes drew an enthusiastic fan following. Yen Press has released Volume 4 of the Sword Art Online: Progressive manga adaption, and you can read on for the review. (For my review of  other Sword Art Online manga, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

While Nezha attempts to atone for his misdeeds, the battle against Sword Art Online’s second-floor boss begins! Kirito’s uneasy alliance with the other front-runners seems to be holding, but what will happen when the floor boss corners them? Can Nezha rise to the occasion and seize a hero’s prize?

The Review

Asuna has been the star of Progressive, but in Volume 004, she leaves the stage for nearly two chapters as the story shifts to the fighters on the front line. While Kirito plays a big part in this section, it’s as much about Agil, Lind, and Kibaou as it is about our black swordsman.This is still early in SAO so the players are still figuring one another out, and it’s amusing to watch egos clash as they collaborate toward the common goal of defeating the Second Floor Boss.

Fortunately, lessons were learned in the previous boss fight, and it’s a very interesting moment when Kibaou, of all people, suggests to the entire raid party that they hear what Kirito has to say about the beta test version. Kirito does have the ”beater” stigma hovering over him, but he’s not the ostracized lone-wolf he was in the anime. Instead, most players realize what he has to offer and would rather have those skills working alongside them. As such, Kirito’s pretty much part of the team as the raid party opens the Boss’ door.

Unlike the first boss fight, this is new material, and the battle completely sucked me in. I don’t often categorize battles as “epic,” but I wouldn’t hesitate to call this one as such. It’s got several unexpected twists along the way, including Asuna’s grand return to the front line. The panels sometimes get a bit squished because so much is happening, but the illustrations do an excellent job of conveying action and emotion. And although heroics and desperation dominate in heat of battle, the creators manage to fit in appropriately funny bits and a romantic moment as well. While I could personally do without the gratuitous Asuna panty shots, this boss fight and its aftermath made me want to stand up and cheer.

Extras include the title page and table of contents in color and bonus illustration.

In Summary

I am truly impressed with how the creators wrap up the Level 2 arc in this volume. Great action, solid plot, excellent character development, and several surprises to keep things exciting. If the rest of the floors in SAO: Progressive are like this, then I’m in for the whole journey.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: My Love Story!! Vol. 8

Takeo Goda, the male lead for Viz Media’s  My Love Story!!  is quite unusual. Bishonen tend to dominate the cast of shojo manga, but Takeo’s looks are about as far from a stereotypical pretty boy as you can get. Still, he possesses tremendous appeal in this hilarious romantic comedy. Volume 8 has been released, and you can read on for the review. (For my review of other volumes, click here.)

Back cover blurb

Yamato invites Takeo to a date at her house, but what’s in store when Takeo meets Yamato’s family for the first time? Furthermore, Takeo now has a rival in love! What will the gentle giant do about his incredibly handsome foe?

The Review

Even if you’re a My Love Story!! fan who prefers the anime over the manga, you should still consider getting Volume 8 because it contains two arcs that were not in the television series. The first arc introduces Yamato’s family, which didn’t appear at all in the anime. The awkwardness of Takeo’s initial encounter with Yamato’s dad is pretty funny, but the wittiness drops off after that. Unlike Takeo’s family, where everyone is extremely unique, Yamato’s family is so average as to be borderline boring, with the exception of Yamato’s crazy dog. As such, the comedy predominantly comes from physical humor (i.e., Takeo’s big body bumping into things) and the usual first meeting with girlfriend’s parents goof-ups. While it translates all right in manga format, I do wish the animators, who had done such a spectacular job adding impact to these kind of scenes, had included this arc in the anime.

Then the focus shifts from Takeo’s Love Story!! to Ai’s Love Story!! Again, I’m surprised to see Ai and the ever persistent Oda return for not one, but two chapters. While the previous Ai-Oda arc was about Oda meddling in Takeo and Yamato’s relationship, this time Oda’s out to win Ai on his own merit. Takeo, of course, is rooting for Oda, and Oda once again stays with the Godas as he makes a new bid for Ai’s affections. Although Ai is not a Goda, she has been Takeo’s big sister figure, and it’s fun to see the Goda family perspective on Ai’s suitor. The story concludes with a literal wild ride, and though it’s entertaining, action scenes are not Aruko-sensei’s strongest point. As with the meeting with Yamato’s family, it’s a sequence I would have loved to see animated.

The volume concludes with the start of summer vacation and a part time job for Yamato. One of the running themes is how women fall for Suna and how they don’t fall for Takeo. Even so, Takeo’s captured the hearts of three girls so far. On the other hand, Yamato, who is universally considered cute, hasn’t attracted anyone else’s attention. Well, that changes with Chapter 31. An actual rival for Yamato’s affections finally arrives in the form of a coworker. But this isn’t your usual high-school love triangle. In addition to being as different from Takeo as can be, Ichinose is a working adult. However, he’s pretty immature for an adult so it works out. At any rate, this kind of competition is bound to send Yamato and Takeo’s relationship into new territory.

Extras include story thus far and notes from the creators.

In Summary

As fun as it is, Takeo and Yamato’s relationship continues at a snail’s pace. After the sitcom that is Takeo’s first meeting with Yamato’s parents, the attention shifts to the as of yet unresolved Oda-Ai relationship for two chapters. Fortunately, the volume refocuses on our main couple with the introduction of a rival for Takeo, who is certain to bring new complications and romcom fun to Takeo’s Love Story!!

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Master Keaton Vol. 5

I became an instant fan of Naoki Urasawa in 2004 when I saw the Monster anime. Psychological thrillers are NOT my cup of tea, but he had me hooked with his combination of realistic artwork and gripping plot. As such, I was thrilled when Viz Media decided to release a translation of an earlier Urasawa action/adventure: Master Keaton. Read on for the review of Volume 5! (For my review of previous volumes, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

Called “half English” in Japan and “half Japanese” in England, Mr. Keaton is a failed college lecturer but a successful insurance investigator… He doesn’t seem to belong in any society, but with a sense of hope, he soldiers on as a maverick operative, traveling across the world and embarking on suspenseful adventures!

The Review

Most stories in this series have been one to two chapters in length, but “The Leopard’s Cage” arc consists of five chapters. That makes it the longest of the Master Keaton tales thus far, but by no means does it drag. The opener with its BBC broadcast to British operatives is a bit silly, but after that, it’s a thrilling ride. The setting is Iraq right after its invasion of Kuwait. Iraq has taken British citizens hostage, and the British government sends Keaton in after Richard, an old classmate who happens to be a member of the royal family. Also part of the operation is Nasr, a Pakistani-British agent, who has his own set of unique skills. In addition to the difficulties of moving in enemy territory, Richard is a severe diabetic with a limited amount of insulin, and he’s also incurred the wrath of an Iraqi Major General known as the Eagle of Karun. This tank-toting general is probably Keaton’s most difficult adversary yet. Keaton’s and Nasr’s skills combined are only barely able to keep them ahead of the Eagle of Karun. The story is also interesting in that it’s a look back to an old regime in an area that continues to be plagued with unrest.

Keaton also gets involved in SAS business in the two-part “David Bobbid” arc. Whereas “The Leopard’s Cage” deals with a present war, this arc deals with a past military conflict and pits Keaton against SAS officers gone bad. The David Bobbid character is kind of freaky, especially his appearance, but the story does drive home how combat trauma manifests in various ways.

The remaining stories are short insurance cases and a flashback into Keaton’s childhood. We have the usual token appearances by Keaton’s father and daughter, but they stay mostly in the backdrop in this installment.

Extras include the first pages of Chapter 1 in color and a sound effects glossary.

In Summary

Keaton gets sucked back to his SAS life for much of this volume. Interestingly, the five-chapter spy adventure of “The Leopard’s Cage” has Keaton using equal parts of his archaeology knowledge and military training, something we haven’t seen in a while. The SAS stories also provide commentary on relatively recent military conflicts. The remaining tales in this installment aren’t nearly as strong, but “The Leopard’s Cage” definitely makes Volume 5 worth your while.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Light Novel Review: Spice and Wolf Vol. #16

Spice and Wolf is a wildly popular light novel series that has spawned off an anime, an Internet radio show, and a manga series. While its European medieval setting is typical of high fantasy, this series has a unique bent. Rather than swordfights and magic, the plot focuses on economics, trade, and peddling in a way that skillfully blends adventure and romance.

Yen Press has released Volume 16 of this series, and you can read on for the review. (You can also click here for my reviews of previous Spice and Wolf releases).

Back Cover Blurb

The introduction of a new currency in the town of Lesko has filled Lawrence with boundless optimism, but his dreams come to a sudden and harsh end when two men from the Debau Company present him with a grim token-Col’s traveling bag. With his young friend’s safety threatened and the stability of the town suddenly in doubt, Lawrence’s plans to open a shop are dashed. Separated from Holo yet again, he finds himself a forced participant in a desperate scheme to reclaim the Debau Company from the nobility who now control it. But when mercenary armies clash in the mountains, what will become of Lawrence and Holo? For good or ill, the finale of their tale is at hand!

The Review

After the cliffhanger of Volume 15, I was eager for the conclusion to the Coin of the Sun. With the return of so many characters from the early part of the series, I was certain Volume 16 would begin with yet another reunion. Instead, Hasekura-sensei throws readers for a loop with the introduction of Hilde Schnau. He provides not only a look into the inner workings of the Debau Company, which Lawrence could only guess at earlier, but the efforts of the ancient to shape the new age.

Since arriving in the Northlands, Holo and Laurence have only encountered one being like Holo, the art dealer Hughes. However, it stands to reason that there would be more. After all, the Northlands are the last bastion of the pagan world. Unlike Hughes, who is content to drift along in the tide of mankind, some are actively working to control that flow, and Holo and Lawrence encounter not one, but three of these beings.

Thanks to internal strife within the Debau Company and Schnau’s plotting, the forbidden book once again becomes key to the fate of the Northlands. In addition, the mercenary companies that had been idle in Lesko finally see some action. The world of Spice and Wolf has been seen largely through the filter of trade; men of war are viewed as opportunity for profit or the hand that enforces the rules by which merchants play. However, Lawrence now gets a glimpse into the world of mercenaries and the rules they abide by. Thus, this fantasy gets some swordplay along with a healthy dose of backstabbing and betrayal.

Not surprisingly, Lawrence is practically useless on the battlefield. And when it comes to dealings on the scale of the Debau Company, he can only marvel at the power and skill wielded by its top strategists. However, there are things only a traveling merchant can observe, and Lawrence gets to make his own dramatic revelation. His thought process is somewhat more agonized than when he worked out the money order scheme with Delink, but it is fortunately much easier to comprehend than the backroom dealings in Kerube.

In the midst of all this excitement, we have Holo and Lawrence striving to forge a path to a quiet future together. This is a change in the dynamic where Holo is always keeping Lawrence at arm’s length. After they join hands in Volume 15, circumstances seem to be conspiring to pull them apart. In fact, Lawrence spends Chapter 7 and most of Chapter 8 away from Holo. However, absence makes the heart fonder, and readers will get to see a display of affection hitherto unthinkable for our wisewolf. No, there’s no steamy smut, but it is sweet, albeit with a dash of Holo’s trademark bite.

This light novel includes the first four pages of illustrations printed in color, world map, and eight black-and-white illustrations.

In Summary

Merchant and wolf reach their journey’s end, and it’s a brilliant finale with unexpected new characters, swordplay, underhanded schemes, and, of course, romance. Lawrence has been called “fool” countless times throughout this series, and over the last several volumes, the threat of ruin has hung over the Northlands. However, Lawrence has grown through his misadventures, and it’s beautiful to see his insight combine with Holo’s strength to protect her ancient homeland.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Barakamon Vol. 8

The contrast between city and rural life has been a source of entertainment since the time of Aesop’s fables. It remains a popular subject in manga and anime today, and joining the ranks of Silver Nina, Non Non Biyori, and Silver Spoon is Yen Press’ series Barakamon. Read on for my review of Volume 8! (For my reviews of previous volumes, click here.)

Back cover blurb

Miwa and Tama leave the island on their middle-school class trip! While the girls are away, handsome young calligrapher Seishuu Handa attempts his first island broadcast, helps Kuroshi (formerly Hiroshi) prepare for an interview, and completely neglects his calligraphy! And in the middle of all this bustle comes the sudden appearance of an ambulance?! The eighth volume of this heartwarming island comedy is full of bittersweet persimmons, souvenirs, and good-byes!

The Review

“I’m being utterly contaminated by the island!!” is what the back cover screams, and that does appear to be the case for Handa. After four months, he and the islanders have grown accustomed to one another, which means less opportunity for “clueless city boy” themed humor. As such, Yoshino-sensei continues using alternate characters as the butt of jokes, and in Volume 8, that role gets mostly saddled onto Miwa and Tama.

While it’s nice to see these two troublemakers suffer for a change, the situations are hardly original. Their cake baking disaster is a scenario done to death, and Miwa gets tiresome as the annoying classmate on the middle school trip gone wrong. The giving of their pathetic souvenirs isn’t much better. Fortunately, Hiroshi’s unsettled career path continues to provide laughs and an opportunity for Handa to play the immature adult.

Then there’s a sudden shift in mood with the passing of the elderly islander Kiyoba. Handa gets roped in to help with the funeral, and the fact that his neighbors are relying on his help is another indication of how he’s become a part of the community. Even so, he’s greatly unfamiliar with their rituals, and readers learn along with him how this village pays its last respects. It’s similar in many respects to the Obon Festival arc, where Handa goes in with certain preconceptions that end up shattered. Like most things on the island, the funeral isn’t a gloomy affair so laughter and yelling coexist amid the more touching moments as Kiyoba gets her final send off.

Extras include a bonus one-page manga, translation notes, and another installment of “Barakamon News.”

In Summary

There’s not much calligraphy but lots of immature goofing around in this installment. Middle school antics dominate the first half with Miwa, Tama, and their class trip to Nagasaki. Unfortunately, most of their situation comedy is so unoriginal it gets tiresome quick. However, the second half becomes much more engaging when Handa helps the village pay final respects to one of its oldest members.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Manga Review: A Bride’s Story Vol. 7

Kaoru Mori is best known for her work, Emma, an exquisite romance/slice-of-life set in Victorian England. Her latest work to be released in the United States, A Bride’s Story, is also a historical/slice-of-life but is vastly different than Emma. Set in Central Asia in a rural town near the Caspian Sea during the early 19th century, A Bride’s Story revolves around a young woman, Amir, who arrives from a distant village across the mountains to marry Karluk, a boy 8 years her junior. Volume 7 has been released, and you can read on for the review. (For reviews of other volumes, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

Acclaimed creator Kaoru Mori’s tale of life on the nineteenth-century Silk Road continues as Mr. Smith extends his journey. This time, he is welcomed into the home of a wealthy tradesman and his wife, Anis. Custom dictates that, as a woman, Anis is not permitted to meet their visitor face-to-face, but even so, she counts herself blessed to live in such a beautiful estate and be married to a man who devotes himself solely to her. Still, one cannot help but long for the companionship of another person when one’s closest friend is a reluctant Persian cat. In her loneliness, Anis visits the public bath house and discovers a place where she feels immediately free among her fellow sisters.

The Review

After the fighting, backstabbing, and chaos of Volume 6, Mori-sensei switches gears. We rejoin Mr. Smith as he enters a new town, where he becomes the guest of a wealthy tradesman. Unlike the previous village where he was constantly interacting with the twins and the other females in the community, the women in this area wear burkas and don’t show their faces to men outside their family. As such, Mr. Smith never actually gets to meet Anis, his host’s wife, who is the focus of this volume.

Anis is a stark contrast to those we’ve met so far. Her movements are limited, but hers is a carefree, privileged existence. She lives in an idyllic estate, loves her adoring husband, and has a healthy baby son. In her world, she’s the woman who has it all. Yet she’s extremely isolated (her main companion is a cat that looks an awful lot like the grumpy cat). Thus, we have a story about a woman seeking female friendship.

Mori-sensei uses Anis’ search to explore two lesser known aspects of Persian culture. The first is the public baths. Although the women in Anis’ community have to cover themselves completely outside their homes, they are not depicted as repressed or abused. Rather, their customs are inconvenient, but they have ways of dealing with it, one of which is the women’s bath. It’s not just a place to get clean. It’s where they relax, socialize, and enjoy themselves. When Smith first passes by the building, he thinks there’s a festival because of the merry racket within. While children and elderly are also patrons, most illustrations of the naked clientele have a sensual quality.

The second aspect is the khwahar khwandagi, the avowed sisters. As described in the manga, it’s a special covenant that binds two married women in a relationship similar to husband and wife. Anis’ encounter with Sherine in the public bath and the course she takes after the two become avowed sisters is somewhat simplistic. However, Anis is a rather simple character, thus the story’s “happily ever after” outcome suits her.

Extras include Mori-sensei’s manga style afterword and a foldout color illustration of the women’s bath. Also, Mori-sensei’s depictions of Anis’ estate are especially gorgeous.

In Summary

From Amir’s active, noisy world, we enter the life of a woman who knows only peace and seclusion. The tradesman’s wife Anis doesn’t have to worry about finances or tribal warfare; she just wants to find a friend. While the customs in Anis’ region are completely foreign to westerners, she is a sweet, likable character, and readers will easily relate to her desire for a peer who understands her.

First published at the Fandom Post.