Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: HAPPY MANIA

So by now you've probably noticed that most of the books I've looked at this month weren't very good (to say the least).  Is there any way to portray a bad romance in a good way?  It turns out that yes, there is a way to do just that.

HAPPY MANIA (Happi Mania), by Moyoco Anno.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
Shigeta wants a boyfriend more than anything.  Sure, she's 24, living in a shared apartment, barely getting by at her dead-end bookstore job, and stuck working alongside a dweeby guy who won't leave her alone, but Shigeru is convinced that if she could find the perfect man then everything in her life would fall into place.  It's too bad then that she keeps picking up feckless losers in her quest for the perfect man, guys who are more interested in a quick screw than any sort of real relationship.  Still, for Shigeru hope (and self-delusion) runs eternal.

STORY:
It took me more than a few tries for me to figure out how to articulate why this series works so well and why I find it so amusing.  I was finally able to slim it down to two reasons: Happy Mania works in part because Shigeru is a gloriously well-written, complex character, and because the series is able to bring out the humor of her situation without descending into mean-spirited mockery. 

It's often said that the strongest female characters aren't those who are simply written to be strong, virtuous paragons, but those who are written simply as people, with all the foibles and faults that any given person might possess.   If that's true, then it certainly explains how Shigeta can remain so relatable to the reader despite showing herself time and again to be a flighty, immature mess of a young woman.  Anno makes no effort to hide Shigeta's many faults: her deep-rooted insecurities, her laziness, her arrogance, her immaturity, the way she uses sex to kickstart new relationships and fix broken ones, and her sour-grapes spite towards anyone who seems to have their lives or relationships.  Yet Anno doesn't judge Shigeta harshly for her actions to try to shame into good behavior.  Oh, a few characters in-story might try to tut-tut Shigeta for the things she's done, but Shigeru tends to blow them off and continue on her own path.  Her actions may be frustrating, but how many of us honestly can say that we didn't possess some of the same qualities when we were 24? How many of us experienced the same sorts of manic highs and insecure, paranoid lows during relationships as Shigeta?  How many of us were convinced that we could turn a flawed lover into a perfect mate or how we could escape dead-end jobs through high-minded dreams of success?  Shigeru might be a misguided, silly young woman, but no more than any of us were at her age, and her adventures are in many ways just comically exaggerated versions of the same troubles we went through at her age.

Of course, this isn't just a one-woman show.  Shigeta does have some good influences in her life (even if she tends to mostly ignore them).  There's her roommate Fuku, whose deadpan snark and blunt, common sense advice stands in firm contrast to Shigeta's manic mood swings.  There are her well-meaning parents.  There's also Takahashi, her dweeby coworker who tries to support her in spite of his massive and blatant crush on her.  He too is all too relatable, someone who is kind and well-adjusted but finds themselves drawn to a hot mess in the hopes of making them better.  You'd think that Anno was trying to set him up as Shigeta's ultimate Mr. Right, but that notion is rejected time and again in-story by Shigeta.  She refuses to settle for anything but the hottest guy she can find, even if those hot guys turn out to be douches looking only for an easy lay.  Still, the weird relationship between those two is one of the few constant plot threads to be found as Shigeta bounces her way from bed to bed, job to job, and from one hysterical dilemma to the next.  Everything that happens here is pretty well grounded in reality, but Anno gives it all a wacky air just by having the reader experience it through Shigeta's wild emotional filter.  We experience her world mostly through her inner monologue, and thus her highs and lows become the reader's highs and lows.  In doing so she has made the mundane ridiculous, and managed to do so without necessarily tearing down Shigeta as a person in the process.  As ridiculous as things can get in Happy Mania, Anno clearly loves Shigeta as a character, and invites the reader to do much the same.

ART:
As I've stated before, Moyoco Anno's artwork is something of a love-it-or-hate-it style.  Either you will accept her alien-looking women with their crude lines, flowing hair, big lips, and frank eyes, or you will reject as too far removed from cuteness to be accepted.  Still, she manages to communicate so much about Shigeta just through subtle facial tics or body language, and she can balance this same subtlety with the sort of comic overreaction that Shigeta is so prone to.  Being a josei work, there's a fair amount of sex and nudity on display, but Anno's approach to both is down to earth.  She's not here to titillate the viewer with the promise of smut, but simply to portray what goes on in a sexually active relationship.  Anno's work isn't for everyone, but it's definitely one of a kind, and it's plain, frank approach to things fits the story well.

RATING:
This was Moyoco Anno's first series, and it's clear that she hit the ground running with Happy Mania.  The story is driven by a leading woman who always manages to be fascinatingly flawed, utterly ridiculous, and yet always sympathetic, drawn in a style that is both alien yet beautiful.  In many ways I relate more to Shigeta than I ever would to the Bridget Joneses or Carries of the world, and I'm glad a perspective like hers was put into comic form for the world to enjoy.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  This series is complete in Japan in 11 volumes.  All 11 volumes were published, and are currently out of print.

This volume and many more like it are available through RightStuf.com!  Any purchases made through these links help support the site!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: JUNJO ROMANTICA

Of course, just because we're talking about bad romances doesn't mean that they all have to be bad STRAIGHT romances.  Yaoi has plenty of unfortunate examples, but how many can be said to feature multiple examples within a single story line or to be as well-known as today's subject?

JUNJO ROMANTICA: PURE-HEARTED ROMANCE (Junjo Romanchika), by Shungiku Nakamura.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2006.



PLOT:
Misaki is determined to get into university, but his grades stink.  His older brother/guardian knows someone who can help, though - Usami Akihiko, a renowned novelist and old friend.  Misaki soon discovers that Usami writes more than literary fiction.  He also apparently writes BL novels featuring himself and Misaki's brother by name.  When Misaki confronts Usami about the matter, Usami responds by forcing himself upon the boy.  Misaki is freaked out by Usami's actions and his own confusion on the matter, but he finds himself moved when he learns just how deep Usami's feelings for his brother go.

At that same university, Hiroki Kamijo is a frustrated college student.  He's in love with Usami, but knows full well that his feelings are unrequired, no matter how many blindfold-assisted trysts they have.  While brooding, he meets up with  Nowaki Kosama, a mellow young man who is working himself through multiple part-time jobs to get himself through college.  He ends up falling for Hiroki at first sight, but Hiroki remains in denial, despite the fact that he takes a greater than normal interest in Nowaki's welfare.

STORY:
I've lamented many times before about how yaoi's low standards for entry tends to result in a lot of works that are dull and sometimes outright awful, but few of them can compare to Junjo Romantica in length, popularity, and sheer awfulness.  I'm convinced at this point that the title is meant to be ironic because everything about the cast and the writing is anything BUT pure-hearted.  Instead it's a giant interwoven mess of oddness, abusiveness, and hackeneyed writing.

Junjo Romantica is built not around one love story, but three of them (although the third is not featured in this first volume).  Most of the volume is focused on the Romantica plotline with Misaki and Usami, and they are by and large the worst couple of the lot.  These two are nothing but every lazy seme and uke cliché you've ever seen cranked to 11, and the result is both eye-rollingly predictable and skin-crawlingly awful.  Misaki is painfully naïve, rude, homophobic and overreactive even before Usami assaults him.  He's also massively in denial, refusing Usami's physical contact or the suggestion that he might be gay despite having living with Usami, taking care of him, and sleeping with him on a regular basis.  Of course, I can't blame him for being angry or in denial on the matter, because lord knows I would do the same to deny any connection to a manipulative, flakey creep like Usami.  He lost me the moment that he decided the best response to accusations of being an indiscriminate rapist was to RAPE HIS ACCUSER.  He then follows this up by essentially entrapping Misaki by isolating him from his peers, make the kid take care of him, molest him on a regular basis in spite of his frequent, noisy protests, and guilt him into staying with him by paying for Misaki's schooling and playing up his oh-so-tragic past.

Nakamura wants the reader to be SO SAD about poor Usami, and her attempts at redeeming him are laughably amateurish.  She has Misaki literally explain Usami's backstory to him for the sake of the audience, and she harps constantly about how Usami never had a proper childhood or just how much Usami loves Misaki's brother, despite knowing his feelings will never be requited.  This might be terribly tragic if not for the fact that the former is there just so she can justify Usami's inability to take care of himself and his creepy toy collection and the latter is resolved in such a shallow, sudden manner that any impact it might have had is instantly lost, and the story forgets about it almost immediately.  Nakamura will simply have to forgive me if I don't start breaking out the violins for Usami because his actions are not those of a man desperately in love.  They are the actions of an obsessive, abusive asshole, and only the most deluded fujoshi could view it as anything otherwise.

Hiroki and Nowaki's storyline, Junjo Egotist, is generally regarded as the "best" of the three storylines, the one that comes off as the least creepy and exploitative of the lot.  While I'll concede that it is less awful and rapey than the previous one, it's still pretty damn far from endearing.  Hiroki is the most overreactive tsundere that ever tsuned, while Nowaki is so innocent and his backstory so mawkish that it feels like he was dragged out of some obscure Horatio Alger novel.  He's literally a poor orphan who has had to support himself his whole life, one who is too determined and proud to take assistance but instead will slave his way through both work and school to get by.  It makes even less sense that he would be so taken with Hiroki, a selfish, paranoid asshole who does nothing but moon over Usami and yell at Nowaki for being an idiot.  Of course, he's hardly a saint himself, backstory be damned.  Nowaki's idea of an introduction is to literally sneak into Hiroki's apartment to care for him, and his idea of flirtation is to passive-aggressively insert himself into Hiroki's life until Hiroki is forced to confess his feelings.  It's a more subtle form of manipulation, and that combined with Hiroki's dickishness turned me off to this couple as well.  Maybe it's for the best that I didn't find out what the third storyline is like.  If these two are any indication, it couldn't possibly be good.

There are a lot of things to hate about both of these storylines, but the worst quality that they both share is the fact that neither relationship ever makes any sort of progress.  No matter how many times someone might confess their feelings, makes a move, or even has sex, in the next chapter everything comes back to the reluctant parties freaking out about how they're TOTALLY NOT GAY, guaranteeing that everything remains at an awful status quo.  It's a strategy that works for Nakamura, as she's used this to stretch out this wretched collection of romance over multiple volumes, but it also means that as awful as this story is, it's guaranteed to never get any better.

ART:
As awful as Nakamura's writing may be, her artwork is even worse.  It's so bad that it is literally a joke.  Well, more accurately, it is literally a meme.  Some of you out there may be familiar with the "Yaoi Hands" meme, where people post examples of the most egregiously exaggerated and off-model examples of yaoi art.  What series spawned that meme?  Why, none other than Junjo Romantica itself, and from the beginning it's not hard to see how it happened.

Every page is a fresh new disaster to behold.  The characters are flat and angular, made up of haystack hairstyles, hatch lines, and bizarrely enormous eyes on gaunt, contortionist bodies.  Proportions are all over the place, so at any point any character may have giant spidery hands, giant feet, stilt-like legs, or orangutan arms and it can literally change from panel to panel.  I'm honestly glad that what few sex scenes can be found in this volume are mostly obscured with dark screentones, because I shudder to think what those would look like unaltered.  She can't even manage to draw limbs that look human, so what kind of abstract horror would she try to pass off as a penis?

Her page composition is just as bad as the character art.  Panels are put together almost at random, and only dialogue indicates which panels follow one another.  Screentones are used and abused with abandon, and what few unobscured backgrounds we do get are as crudely rendered as everything else.  Even the few bits of color artwork can't improve on things.  This series is just a constant eyesore from cover to cover, and I'm appalled that something so visually lacking could seriously get published.

RATING:
Junjo Romantica is a popular series.  It covers multiple volumes of manga, light novels, and audio dramas.  It has spawned two seasons of anime, with a third on the way.  It was the first yaoi series to top the New York Times manga bestsellers list.  It's achieved a level of success that few yaoi manga can ever hope to reach.  It's also THE worst yaoi manga I've ever read.  Its notions of romance are unnervingly creepy when they're not amateurishly melodramatic, and the artwork is like something spawned from the worst depths of DeviantArt.  This isn't pure-hearted romance, this is purely awful garbage.

This series was published by Tokyopop, under their Blu imprint.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 18 volumes currently available.  12 volumes were published, and all are out of print.

Manga like this and much more can be found at RightStuf.com!  Any purchase made through this link help support the Manga Test Drive!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: AI ORE!

I can't cover bad romance in shoujo without bringing up a work from one of its masters: Mayu Shinjo.  Her works are notorious for being full of innocent ingénues who find themselves under the spell of leering, manipulative douchebags looking to get laid but who ultimately fall for the good girl's good graces.  Today's review covers a series that on the surface appears to be defying that formula, but in the end Shinjo can't help but succumb to her worst instincts.

AI ORE! (Ai o Utau yori Ore ni Oberero!), by Mayu Shinjo.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2011.



PLOT:
Mizuki is the lead guitarist of the hottest new boy band, Blauen Rosen.  Mizuki is cool, good-looking, surrounded by adoring fans.  Mizuki is also a girl, as are the other members of Blauen Rosen.  Their lead singer is moving overseas, though, and the future of the band is up in the air...at least, until Akira comes along.  Akira is short and feminine-looking, but he's also one of Mizuki's biggest fans.  He's so determined to get close to her that he'll both try out for the band and infiltrate Mizuki's all-girl school to make her face what he believes to be the truth: that he loves her, that she loves in in return, and that her band needs him to survive.

STORY:
I really wanted to hope that Mayu Shinjo was changing her ways with this series.  Her male leads have a reputation for being rather rapey aggressive and her heroines have a reputation for being doormats naïve, and I hoped that the gender-bending angle might allow her to get away from that.  I was almost at the point where I could have embraced this as a guilty pleasure, but then she took the story to a place too dark for me to follow willingly.

While Mizuki and Akira appear to be reversals on Shinjo's usual brand of leads, their true personalities are anything but that.  Mizuki might play at being cool and alluring, but in truth she's just a tomboyish innocent who constantly (and often literally) runs away from her feelings.  Akira is considered the 'princess' of his own all-male school, but his delicate looks bely the fact that he's a manipulative little brat who exploits his girly looks to get out of trouble.  He's also surprisingly forceful and focused to the point of obsession, and he's constantly badgering Mizuki with his feelings in the hopes that he'll eventually wear her down.  The reader is meant to be amused by this comic reversal, but really it's nothing more than the usual, exploitative dynamic dressed up in drag.  Akira is the one who holds all the power in the relationship, the one who constantly threatens to expose Mizuki for whom she truly is, and the one who is constantly crafting new, more extreme scenarios to get close to her, and this extreme power imbalance always makes their romance feel exploitative instead of alluring.

Still, the series makes the most of the cross-dressing angle, even if it's never explained exactly why Blauen Rosen have to perform as men.  Cross-dressing here isn't done as an expression of one's sexuality, but instead for utilitarian purposes.  For Mizuki, it's a defense mechanism that allows her to protect both her private life and her delicate heart.  For Akira, it's an offensive tool he uses to play upon the expectations of others to whatever degree he wishes and always for his own gain.  It also doesn't play up the secret of their true gender for the sake of drama.  They could have dragged out their mutual discovery for chapters on end, turning it into a hurtle blocking the progress of their romance, but their secrets are revealed to one another fairly quickly and it turn it becomes a something that they can share only with one another.  It might be sweet if not for the turn the story takes near the end of the volume.

(WARNING: The following paragraph contains spoilers and references to rape.)

So you're probably wondering by this point why I have such an issue with Akira or why I keep alluding to the ending.  Well, remember how I said that Akira likes to manipulate others to get his way?  Well, he find outs that Mizuki is going off on a class trip and decides to follow her.  While there he overhears a plot by some of Mizuki's classmates to incapacitate her and rape her.  He in turn saves her by convincing another group of kids to rape the conspirators in turn, with Mizuki completely oblivious to any of these actions.  First of all, it's bad enough that Shinjo was already reaching for the rape card, a plot device that's not only tired as hell but incredibly insensitive to boot.  Then she had to compound it by making the love interest complicit in plotting one himself, and while the act is not shown it's implied that Akira's efforts were successful.  The notion of using rape to stop a rape is so monstrous and counterintuitive that it makes my head spin, and the fact that Shinjo is trying to paint that as a noble, even romantic gesture is sickening.  I don't care if he spent the rest of the series acting like a perfect saint, because at that point Akira is beyond forgiveness.  At that moment the book went from 'guilty pleasure' to 'OH GOD GET IT AWAY FROM ME."

It's kind of distressing for me that Mayu Shinjo remains one of the best known and best-selling shoujo mangaka of recent years because while the surface details may change, Ai Ore! isn't any different from her other series at heart.  It's still based around exploitative forms of romance and it's still fueled by tired, exploitive clichés.

ART:
While Shinjo's storytelling is extremely troublesome, her art remains pleasant but unremarkable.  Her character designs are androgynous enough to make Mizuki and Akira's cross-dressing plausible, but she's clearly more in love with dressing them up like they were caught in a Hot Topic explosion that she is with the idea of drawing interesting faces or hair that doesn't look like a tangled mop.  Her panels are large and angular, and she fills them in only with the barest trace of screentone.  Otherwise, there really isn't much to say for her art.  It's not bad looking, it's not hard to follow, but it also doesn't really stick in the mind either.

RATING:
As much as Shinjo tries, Ai Ore! can't escape her trashy tendencies.  All she's done to change things here is to dress her leads in drag, hoping that will be enough to distract the readers from the fact that the male lead is an awful person and that her artwork remains stubbornly average.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in 8 volumes, and all are currently in print and available in e-book form through Viz.com.

This volume and many more like are available through RightStuf.com!  A portion of any purchase made through these links helps support The Manga Test Drive!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: BOYS OVER FLOWERS

With February upon us and Valentine's Day less than two weeks away, the notion of love is just about everywhere you look.  In the past I've looked at harems or reverse harems this time of year, but this year I want to do so something a little different.  I want to look at the nonconventional sorts of romance one can find in manga, the sorts that could be described as "odd," "dysfunctional," "creepy," and sometimes even worse.  Think of this month as a celebration of bad romance, no matter whether it's bad on purpose or by accident.

So let's kick this month off in style with one of the classics, the sort of story where boys meet girl, girls stands up to bullying boys, boys bully her in turn, only to start falling for her.  Only in manga would this be considering the set up for a reverse harem.

BOYS OVER FLOWERS (Hana Yori Dango ), by Yoko Kamio.  First published in 1992, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
Tsukushi Makino is the lone middle-class student at the ultra-elite and ultra-rich Eitoku Academy, having been pushed into attending due to her parents' desire to show off to others.  She can't begin to relate to the mindset, activities, or allowances of her classmates, so she mostly keeps her head down and does her best to suppress her frustration at the inequality around her as well as the activities of the F4 gang.  They're a four-man group of the richest, most spoiled boys at the school, and their opinions shape who is and is not socially accepted at Eitoku.  Tsukushi ends up catching their ire when she stands up for a friend, and the boys in turn declare social war upon her...at least, until their leader starts to fall for Tsukushi.

STORY:
Man, if you want to experience a tonal shift that will leave you stunned, go read Boys Over Flowers.  I'll give Kamio major credit for crafting a story around a truly strong heroine, but the sudden shift from antagonistic to almost comical left me feeling both angry and confused.

I complain a lot about the lack of strong, self-determined heroines in shoujo, but this manga is a merciful exception to that.  Tsukushi has a strong will and a keen sense of justice, and her seething frustration at the obliviousness and lack of empathy around her is more than understandable to the reader.  She has her occasional moments of self-doubt, but she has more than enough inner strength and empathy to stand up for the people she cares about and gives the bullies of F4 what they deserve, whether it's an angry lecture or (best of all) AN EPIC KICK TO THE FACE.  It's so nice to see a shoujo story centered around a girl who truly can handle herself in most situations.

I have to say "most situations" because more or less from the outset, the F4 boys don't play fair.  They set the usual sort of Mean Girls at her to cause Tsukushi all sort of humiliation, but the boys themselves prove to be downright sadistic in their actions.  They actually bribe another group of boys so that they'll try to rape her.  THIS IS A THING THAT SERIOUSLY HAPPENS IN THIS BOOK.  Even by the standards of Shoujo Melodrama, that is crossing a serious line.  We soon learn that this idea comes straight from the gang's leader, Tsukasa Doumyouji, and it's with him there the tonal whiplash starts.  You see, Kamio tries to counter his sadism by trying to make him a comic foil as well by having him misuse big words in an attempt to sound smart.  Then he convinces himself that's Tsukushi's resistance to him means that she must be in love with him (that, and that she reminds him of his older sister, which speaks to a bit of a complex on his part). 

I find myself deeply conflicted about the notion of redeeming the F4 boys, Tsukasa in particular.  On one hand, his misguided crush does lead to the rest of the boys gaining a begrudging respect for her, and they start to behave more friendly towards Tsukushi, which does help steer the story away from the very bad and melodramatic places it was going.  On the other hand, their actions were so extreme that it's going to take more than just a few gestures of reconciliation to make things right, and I don't blame Tsukushi for being rather confused by their actions.  I especially don't like the idea of building up any of them as potential love interests, much less the delusional Tsukasa, at least not without a lot of effort made towards forcing him to grow up and own up to his actions.

Boys Over Flowers is an interesting series to read, to say the least.  It's got a great, sympathetic heroine whose strong personality and willing to take action allow her to survive the melodramatic twists and turns of the plot.  On the other hand, the tone takes a hard turn halfway through towards something more lighthearted, and that shift is in equal parts welcome and uncomfortable.  It's hard to say what direction Boys Over Flowers is going to take, but it's certainly not going to be a boring one.

ART:
Boys Over Flowers is very clearly a product of its time, and I suspect that will leave younger readers chuckling.  The character designs are pleasant enough, but their style is firmly rooted in the early 1990s, which means that it's nothing but bad, warmed-over 80s fashion as far as the eye can see.  It's especially bad with the F4 gang, who look like rejects from Color Me Badd right down to Tsukasa's weird mop of what are either tight curls or short dreadlocks.  Otherwise Kamio's art is fairly plain, which is unusual for a shoujo manga of this age.  There aren't a lot of backgrounds nor a lot of screentones and effects save for the occasional flourish of flowers.  It's a classy, almost restrained touch that helps to counteract the tackiness of the then-contemporaneous fashion, which in turn makes the artwork here a little more timeless than it would be otherwise.

RATING:
While I can't say that I'm completely crazy for Boys Over Flowers, I can respect its willingness to give its heroine a backbone, its relative sense of artistic restraint, and its overall unpredictability.  I can see why this title would still be remembered by others, even two decades after its initial release.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in 37 volumes, and all are out of print.

You can pick up manga like this and much more through RightStuf.com!  Any purchases made through these links helps support the Manga Test Drive!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: CHOBITS

Of course, no CLAMP month these days can go by without featuring one of the many classics Dark Horse Comics picked up in the stead of Tokyopop, and today's review is no exception to that.

CHOBITS (Chobittsu), by CLAMP.  First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2002.



PLOT:
Persocoms are the latest technological craze.  They are walking computers shaped like beautiful people (mostly women), and it seems that everyone in Tokyo has one...well, everyone but Hideki Motosuwa.  He's a poor cram school student from the countryside who barely makes ends meet as is, but he dreams of getting a Persocom for practical purposes ('practical purposes' meaning 'Internet porn').  Hideki's luck seemingly turns for the best when he finds a Persocom put out amongst the evening trash, but his lucky find is not all that she seems.  His new Persocom is seemingly unable to perform the slightest task on her own and is unable to say anything but "Chii."  Hideki now has to focus on teaching Chii about the world all while he works on finding out her origins, which may be tied to an urban legend about the Chobits, Persocoms that are capable of genuine emotion and thought.

STORY:
So what happens when everyone's favorite all-woman manga team tries to tackle the male-oriented world of magical girlfriend manga?  Well, like so many of their previous works, they flip some of the old clichés on their head, insert a bit of humor, and build their story around a unconventional love story.  Mind you, all of this isn't obvious from the outset.  After all, Chobits stars a spastic, horny young guy who is down on his luck who happens to be surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful women, whose actions in turn only make him more awkward.  How is this any different from the others?

First and foremost, it flips the idea of the perfect magical girlfriend on its head.  Hideki thinks that by getting a Persocom he could solve all his troubles.  He could have the status symbol item of the moment, have a sentient sex doll to stand in for the perfect girlfriend, and he could at long last stop perceiving himself as a failure compared to his peers.  Of course, Chii is anything but the perfect girlfriend, there to service all of Hideki's needs.  If anything, Hideki has to service her needs because she is essentially like a child.  She has to be taught to do just about everything - to speak, to dress herself, and how to function in the wider world.  Like a child, she readily imitates anything that Hideki does.  This becomes what is easily the funniest running gag in the volume, as Chii is often imitating Hideki's every moment to perfection as he freaks out over whatever issue has come his way.  Still, Chii and Hideki's oddly parental relationship makes for an interesting bit of role reversal in a genre that tends to stay firmly entrenched in traditional gender roles, even if it makes Hideki's growing affection for her more than a little weird.  Sure, he's aware that it's weird because he's human and she's a computer, a fact which gets drilled into his head more than once, but it becomes rapidly apparent that their relationship occupies a weird place between parent/child and innocent romance.

That same sense of subversion can be found in the rest of the female cast.  At first it seems that Hideki has his choice of women in tradionally fetish roles - sexy landlord, sexy teacher, and sexy coworker.  In any other story, all of these women would pose some degree of romantic interest in our leading man.  Here, though, that applies only to one out of those three women.  Chibiya (the landlord) is more of a motherly figure to both Hideki and Chii.  Shizuma-sensei (the teacher) does end up drunk and half-clothed at Hideki's place due to circumstance, but even then neither of them makes any sort of move.  Only Yuna (the coworker) has any actual romantic interest in Hideki, and even there she's shown to be less than keen on the concept of Persocoms.  While none of these characters get a lot of screentime or deep development in the first volume, they are shown to have lives and thoughts outside of Hideki, a fact that makes them more interesting than their equivalents in similar manga.

Chobits has a lot going on for it story-wise.  It's got a great sense of humor, which can't be said for most magical girlfriend manga.  On the other hand, much more effort is put towards the jokes than "boy falls into boobs" or "boy gets nosebleed from girl being sexy."  A lot of it stems more from Chii's innocent misunderstandings of everyday life and having no conversational filter.  It also tends to follow a lot of the usual story beats for such romances (boy meets girl, brings her home, buys her clothes, etc.), but by flipping a lot of the typical character roles and dynamics on their head CLAMP has breathed some life into this dull genre.

ART:
While the character designs here couldn't be mistaken for anything but CLAMP characters, they bear a stronger resemblance to the simpler forms of Angelic Layer or Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles than their previous shoujo works.  Another notable difference here is that this is one of the few CLAMP works with male-oriented fanservice.  They've never been short on manservice, what with all the pretty bishies who sometimes touch and pose in homoerotic ways, but Chii ends up flashing more than her fair share of cleavage and suggestive poses.  This can even be found in the otherwise lovely and delicate splash art, where Chii is the sole focus.  Of course, in context this suggestiveness is more than a bit awkward, considering her child-like nature.

The page composition here is rather restrained, which is surprising considering how often Hideki likes to fill his panels full of gasps, tears, and flailing.  While CLAMP does take advantage of the background for some additional jokes, they don't draw a lot of backgrounds and add a lot of screentone.  That restraint can even be found in those previously mentioned pieces of color artwork.  The color palatte there tends to be restrained to a lot of delicate pastels and flowery, natural settings.  It's an interestingly shoujo-esque affectation for what is meant to be a seinen work, but I suspect that that same flail helps to explain why this series appeals just as much to CLAMP's traditionally female audience as it does to the guys who normally read magical girlfriend manga.

RATING:
Chobits succeeds where so many magical girlfriend series fail because it's willing to subvert a lot of the usual tropes to create a narrative that embraces some of the weirdness within.  It also finds a way to combine seinen cheesecake with shoujo prettiness to create artwork that appeals to a wider audience.  Even those who are normally wary of such premises should give this series a chance.

This series was previous published by Tokyopop and is currently published by Dark Horse.  This series is complete in 5 volumes.  The single volumes from Tokyopop are out of print, but the 2 omnibus releases from Dark Horse are currently in print.

This volume and many more like it can be purchased through RightStuf.com!  If you buy through this link, part of the purchase go towards supporting The Manga Test Drive!


Monday, January 12, 2015

ONE VOLUME WONDER: The One I Love

Let's take a quick break to take a look at a tiny little CLAMP one-shot put out by Tokyopop back in the day when they would literally publish anything with CLAMP's name on it.

THE ONE I LOVE (Watashi na Sukinahito), by CLAMP.  First published in 1995, and first published in North America in 2004.



PLOT:
This anthology peeks into the lives of twelve young people united by a single concept: love.  Some are trying to gain it by winning the hearts of others and some may be trying to maintain it in their relationships, but all are connected by the various ways they experience love.

STORY:
This is CLAMP at their briefest and utmost fluffiest.  Depending on your mood and tolerance for fluffy shoujo cuteness, it can be entertaining, but all that brevity and fluff comes at the expense of depth and drama.

These are very brief vignettes, with none of them numbering over 10 pages in length.  As such, you only get the briefest sketch as to who our lead characters are.  Many are so brief that their leads don't even get the benefit of a name.  The conflicts within are also appropriately brief and simple, with most being variations on "Oh God, does he like me? Oh goodness, he DOES love me!" or "Oh no, he doesn't love me anymore!  Oh, my mistake, he actually does still love me!"  The stories are structured in a way that resembles the progression of a relationship, starting with stories about first love and building up all the way to a story about a bride with a case of pre-ceremony cold feet.  True to form, CLAMP did include a same-sex couple amongst these stories, and to their credit their story is treated no differently than the hetero ones.

All that being said, the collection is ultimately hurt to some degree by being so short and sweet.  In many ways, this anthology is like the manga version of cotton candy.  All that fluffy sweetness can be fun in the short term, but the pleasure is fleeting and there's little to no substance behind it.  This collection feels like CLAMP just took a bunch of half-baked outlines for scenes and draped the barest minimum of storyline upon them.  They didn't bother with character or drama, they simply threw out what they had so they could fill up a few pages, make a few yen, and then move on with the rest of their day.  The One I Love may be a pleasant read, but without anything serious to anchor it down it simply passes out of one's mind the moment the reader puts down the book.

ART:
The artwork here is just as cutesy as the story.  It's very much in the same vein as manga like CLAMP School Detectives, with lots of delicate linework and loads of chibis.  Backgrounds are rather minimal, with just a hint of floating petals or light washes of color or pattern to frame the characters.  Despite the small size of the book, the panels are large and spacious, which supports the overall lightness and airiness of the artwork.  The art may not be all that much more substantial than the story, but it's beautifully drawn and matches the sugar-sweet tone to a T.

PRESENTATION:
Despite being such a small, slender work, Tokyopop put some effort into making it look good.  The first few pages, along with the first chapter, are rendered in full color watercolors on heavy, textured paper.  There are notes from the members of CLAMP after each chapter, along with the chibi-heavy omakes that they made so frequently back in the day.

RATING:
While The One I Love is a sweet little confection with lovely artwork, all but the most dedicated CLAMP fans will consider this more of a curiosity than anything else.  It's enjoyable to consume, but lacks the substance needed to stick in one's memory.

This volume was published by Tokyopop, and is currently out of print. 

This volume and many more like it can be purchased through RightStuf.com!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Review: TSUBASA RESERVOIR CHRONICLES

Well, it's January once more, which means that it's time for another month full of CLAMP works.  To kick things off, let's take a look at one of CLAMP's biggest, most notorious, and most intimidating works.

TSUBASA RESERvoir CHRoNiCLES (Tsubasa: Rezaboa Kuronikuru), by CLAMP.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2004.



PLOT:
On the world of Clow, Syaoran spends his days working on archeological sites when he's not spending time with his oldest friend, Princess Sakura.  When she comes to visit him at the mysterious ruins he's excavating, she is seized by unknown forces that scatter her memories to the winds and leave her unconscious and on the brink of death.  Now Syaoran now must travel to another world to find a way to save Sakura before it's too late.

On the world of Nihon, the warrior Kurogane is the fiercest, most fearless swordfighter in all of the kingdom, but it's come at the cost of his humanity.  In an attempt to teach humility and the value of life, the Princess Tomoyo sends Kurogane away to another world, even as he wishes only to return to his own.

On the world of Celes, the mage Fai D. Flowright has sealed King Ashura in a crystal tomb under a deep pool of water for reasons only known to Fai himself.  Now he needs to escape to another world in the hopes of escaping his troubled past.

All four find themselves transported to Yuuko, the Space-Time Witch.  She can help all of their causes, but at a steep personal price for each member.  Now they must team up together along with Yuuko's creation Mokona to travel between other, distant worlds to recover Sakura's memories and find the solutions to their own troubles.

STORY:
A lot of people feel intimidated by Tsubasa.  They know that it's this sprawling series with numerous cross-overs to CLAMP's other previous works.  As such, some think that the only way one can get Tsubasa is to read all their other manga first, and for many that's simply too much homework to do for a single shonen series.  Speaking as both an honest reviewer and as someone who has read most of CLAMP's works, I can say with some certainty Tsubasa can be in fact enjoyed on its own merits.  Yes, there is a lot of crossovers and cameos, but the characters and settings are altered enough that even those who have never touched a CLAMP book previous can follow and enjoy this series on their own.

That being said, there are a LOT of CLAMP cameos in just this single volume alone.  It features cameos or alternate versions of characters from:

  • Cardcaptor Sakura
  • xxxHolic
  • X/1999
  • Chobits
  • RG Veda
  • Miyuki-Chan In Wonderland
  • Magic Knight Rayearth
Their inclusion doesn't interrupt the flow of the story, though.  If you can recognize them, then it's a fun little bonus for a fan, but you don't have to know a thing about them to continue.  This is even true for the characters from Tsubasa's sister series xxxHolic.  Yes, Yuuko is the one who sets our main cast upon their way and serves as the primary source of exposition, but one doesn't need to know the events of that universe to understand what's going on here.

That's even true for our leading man and lady.  While they do share names and basic personality points with the Sakura and Syaoran of Cardcaptor Sakura, they are not the same characters.  In all fairness, it's harder to say that for Sakura than for Syaoran, but that's because she spends most of this volume in a coma and as such we don't learn much about her beyond the odd flashback.  Still, that lets them fit in smoothly with the original characters of Fai and Kurogane.  Those two have long been the most popular cast members, and it's easy to see why.  While their respective dilemmas are quite opposite of one another, both are simple and compelling in their own right.  The two also form what is essentially a manzai duo, with Fai being the one dishing out the sly jokes and teasing and Kurogane being the straightman whose frustration is always met with laughter.  Admittedly, this is used mostly for a bit of ship-teasing on CLAMP's part, which was (and still is by many) met with enthusiastic approval.  Still, I enjoyed that they were treated as characters in their own rights with their own issues and dynamic and not just the chaperones for the rather milquetoast leads.

I do have to say that as a shonen series, Tsubasa starts off on a strong note.  It doesn't waste any time introducing our main quartet, setting them upon their quest, and ending on a cliffhanger fight.  It doesn't rush through things, but neither does it have the glacial pacing of its animated counterpart.  The tone is light and breezy, and exposition dumps are kept to a minimum.  Tsubasa really is just a very pleasant sort of action-adventure story, and it does a good job at finding the balance between introducing the cast and premise and getting the plot proper moving.  It has a lot of callbacks for the fans, but they don't get in the way of telling the story or engage those new to CLAMP.

ART:
The artwork here is very much in the same vein as previous shonen and seinen works from CLAMP like Angelic Layer and Chobits.  The linework is dark and thick, but the long, lanky bodies and faces are far more simple and less stylized than those of their older works or the finer, more elegant style of xxxHolic.  In particular, I really like Kurogane's striking visual design, who spends most of the volume looking like a block of stark black accented only by his face and a few minor details. 

There's not a lot of action here, and most of what we see is the sort of swirly tendrils of magic that fill the page instead of a lot of hack-and-slash sort of fighting.  The page composition is rather free and easy, with plenty of big, roomy splash panels and characters often spilling out over the panel borders, and this is emphasized by the fact that backgrounds are rare and sparsely drawn.  There's just a general sort of lightness to the art which fits the tone of the story perfectly and helps visually distinguish Tsubasa from CLAMP works of both past and present.

RATING:
In spite of its reputation, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles can be just as enjoyable to a CLAMP newcomer as it can be to the hardened fan.  It's a light and breezy adventure helmed by an engaging cast (well, half of one at least) and it's simple a well-assembled bit of shonen.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics, formerly Del-Ray.  This series is complete in Japan in 28 volumes, and all have been published in North America.  The single volume releases are out of print, but the series is currently available in 3-in-1 omnibuses, of which 3 are currently in print.

This volume and many more like it can be purchase through RightStuf.com!

No, I don't get why the title is so randomly capitalized.  I doubt even CLAMP knows at this point.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Giveaway Winner & Year-End Thoughts

Before I go any further, it's time to announce the winner of this year's Holiday Giveaway.  It sounds like a lot of you are reading some good stuff (and more than one of you got hooked on Vinland Saga, which warms my heart after the shock of that series going on hiatus).  Ultimately I had to pick one, though, and this year's winner is usamimi's short but sweet comment:

Definitely "Silent Voice" on Crunchyroll! It was really unique and totally sucked me in. I'm so glad it's getting a print edition soon.
Congratulations usamimi!  If you'll send me an email over at mangatestdrive@gmail.com, I will get you that gift certificate code over to you right away, ready and able to be used at your will.

Speaking of RightStuf, I'm proud to announce that starting tomorrow, this site will be part of their affiliate program!  That means that when and where applicable, there will be links in my reviews will allow you to purchase the books I review, along with anime, merchandise, and much more.  It's a great opportunity to not only add some great books to your own shelves, but also to support the site and help keep the Manga Test Drive chugging along.

It's been quite the year for me.  I started out 2014 burnt out on this whole 'manga reviewing' thing and beginning to wonder if I would ever come back to the site.  After a few months and a lot of thought, though, I made my return.  It took me a bit to get back into the groove of things, but now I can say with confidence that my dedication to the site and to reviewing manga is stronger than ever, and I'm grateful to everyone that gives my humble little blog a look.  I'm also grateful that some of you have followed my ventures over at Infinite Rainy Day.  I took on the position there in the hopes of expanding my repertoire a little, and I've been incredibly happy with the results.  I'm also so happy that I was able to participate in a podcast for the first time ever, and those who haven't already should take a listen to hear my thoughts on Kill La Kill and Yamada's First Time.

I have to give a major shout out to the folks over at MangaBlog, who have been so kind as to feature some of my reviews and I'm grateful for each and every signal boost.  I also have to give a shout out to Ash at Experiments In Manga, who brought me to their attention as a long-time fan of the site.  Ash is an excellent reviewer in his own right and you should absolutely follow him and the many other reviews over at Manga Bookshelf.  I have to give some love to my fellow writers at Infinte Rainy Day: Jonathan, Stephanie, Zac, John, Walter, David, and Thomas.  I've greatly enjoyed reading your own reviews and articles and am proud and pleased to be part of such a fine crew of writers.  I also have to do the same for my old friends over at The Five Point Podcast - it was a pleasure to talk with you guys, and I hope that you guys can get back to making more podcasts in the next year. 

Last and by no means least, though, I have to thank every single one of you who reads this site.  It doesn't matter whether you've been reading it from the beginning or simply stumbled upon a link, your views and input are what keep me going and keep me motivated.  You guys are the reason I came back, and you guys are also the reason I plan on keeping this site going into 2015 and beyond.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Review: WHAT DID YOU EAT YESTERDAY?

Let's finish this up on a high note with something just as warm and cozy as the last review.  After all, what could be more appropriate for Christmas Day than a series that's all about relationships and food? 

WHAT DID YOU EAT YESTERDAY? (Kino Nani Tabeta?), by Fumi Yoshinaga.  First published in 2007, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Kenji and Shiro are a loving gay couple of three years.  Kenji is a hairdresser who is comfortable with himself, his relationship, and Shiro's fine home cooking.  Shiro is a successful lawyer, but he's also far more neurotic and secretive about himself and his lifestyle.  It's hard to blame him when he has a hard enough time getting his parents to accept him as a gay man; trying to do the same for his coworkers or the world at large is too much for him to bear.  Shiro would rather focus on the things he can control, like his cases, his budget, and his kitchen.  Shiro is not only a great cook, but a frugal one, and he enjoys planning out meals and working through each step of a recipe.  While trials and tribulations may come their ways, it seems everything in Kenji and Shiro's life seems to wrap up contently at the dinner table.

STORY:
I've made no secret in the past about my fondness of the works of Fumi Yoshinaga.  Her boys' love works are above-average, and her drama and slice-of-life works are some of the finest manga you'll find on the market.  This, her most recent series, is essentially the meeting of those two genres, although its appeal will depend just as much on your love of cooking as it will on the appeal of the main cast.

It's rare to see any manga that focuses on a committed gay couple such as Kenji and Shiro.  After all, most BL is focused on the rush of new love and the build up to the ultimate confession thereof.  Kenji and Shiro are long past that point, though.  They've settled nicely into adulthood, where they work all day and come home to talk over dinner about work, household issues, or whatever may be going on with friends and family.  This is very much a slice-of-life story in the most literal sense of that term, and it's a credit to Yoshinaga's skill with character building that even these everyday conversations are interesting, letting them give insight to the characters without hammering the reader over the head about it. 

While Kenji does get his fair share of starring chapters, most of the narrative focus stays on Shiro.  It's kind of ironic, since Shiro spends so much of his screen time trying to avoid drama and avoid notice.  It's just that he likes to be in control at all times.  He likes to have control of his cases, maintaining his health and good looks, and his home.  He doesn't want a bunch of questions or comments from other people, like the ones he gets from his housewife friend when he first meets her family.  He doesn't want a lot of misunderstandings like he gets from his parents, especially his mother.  She's the sort who thinks that going to a gender disorder support group counts as supporting her son, even as she grows visibly nervous as the suggestion of Shiro bringing Kenji to his parents' place.  You can't blame the man for wanting to retreat from all that and focusing instead on where he can get the best price for tofu or watermelons.  Knowing that, it also helps the reader understand why these two would stay together so long.  Kenji is good at smoothing out troubles with difficult customers, and he enjoys the simple pleasures of life.  Thus, he's very good at helping Shiro relax while always providing an appreciative audience for his cooking.  Yoshinaga's always been skillful at bringing out the nuances in her characters and their relationships, and that skill is in full effect here.  Kenji and Shiro feel like real people you could meet and know, with quirks and foibles that are appropriate for their age and their personalities.  The coziness of their relationship makes for a very inviting read.

I cannot emphasize enough just how important cooking is to this story.  Where her previous work Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me Happy was all about celebrating Yoshinaga's favorite restaurants, here's she celebrating the joy of good home cooking.  Shiro has a tendency to mentally narrate his way step by step through his recipes, and the steps are so thorough that one could almost use them like traditional recipes.  A fairly wide variety of dishes and cuisines are represented, with everything from mapo doufu to baked chicken thighs to strawberry jam, often with plenty of complementary side dishes.  Mostly I'm impressed at how easily he comes up with these recipes, considering that he's never seen consulting a cookbook and comes up with ideas on the fly based on whatever is on sale.  Still, sometimes the chapters can get a little too lost in the process, and those who aren't deeply into cooking or baking might start to get bored.

What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a rather apt title for this series.  It not only reflect the obvious focus on food and cooking, but it also implies the coziness of the relationship that makes up its core.  This is the kind of slice-of-life I want to see, the sort that actually feels like a slice of someone's life and not just overly pleasant wish-fulfillment. 

ART:
Yoshinaga's artwork remains, as always, as finely drawn and nuanced as ever.  The characters here still tend towards the sort of square-jawed, lightly lined characters she tends to draw, with a wide variety of ages, shapes, and looks, and everyone is expressive and subtle in their face and movement.  There's a lot more background than what is usually seen in her works, even if those backgrounds are mostly the interiors of office rooms and apartments, and it helps to further ground this story in reality.  What truly gets the benefit of Yoshinaga's pen is the food itself.  Each step is illustrated in almost photorealistic detail, and it's always easy to visually follow the recipes.  I've always been a fan of Yoshinaga's artstyle, but this series might be the best match I've seen yet between it and the story.  Her particular brand of handsome minimalism lends beauty to the quiet, mundane elements of Kenji and Shiro's life without ever distracting from it.

RATING:
What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a wonderful, low-key celebration of a loving couple and the life (and meals) built around it.  Charm and subtlety abound in both the writing and the art, and I'm so very happy that Vertical finally brought this series over.

This series is published by Vertical.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 9 volumes currently available.  5 volumes are currently available, and all are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway!  The giveaway ends at midnight tonight!


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Review: BARAKAMON

As we start wrapping things up for our holiday reviews, let's shift our focus to some warm and fuzzy slice-of-life manga.  We'll start with the one that's all about small towns, cute kids, and...calligraphy?

BARAKAMON, by Satsuki Yoshino.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2014.



PLOT:
Handa Seishuu is a bright young professional calligrapher, but he's also got something of a temper.  He needs to get away for a while because he punched his boss for calling Handa's art workmanlike.  So he heads off to an island on the far western coast of Japan, where he can hopefully get away from the world and find some new inspiration.  What Handa finds there is anything but peace and quiet, though.  He soon becomes the talk of the small town, as well as the focus for the curious and hyperactive little girl Naru.  While relaxing may now be out of the question, Handa is slowly coming around to small town living and small town people.

STORY:
This is a premise we've all seen before.  Some high-falutin' city person comes to the country for some contrived reason, and said person ends up having a lot of fish-out-water moments as they have hilarious encounters with the backwards locals.  In the end, though, the city person comes to love the community and chooses to stay.  While it's too early to say if Barakamon will follow this formula to its end, it builds upon this formula to create something that's wonderfully charming.

While Handa is technically our lead, it becomes clear from early on that Naru becomes the breakout character, and that's a fact that could be potentially distressing.  After all, manga tends to idealize small children in the same way that most forms of media tend to do.  They turn them into cute little performing monkeys, there to act charming and perfect and adorable, but not like a real child.  Naru definitely does not have that problem.  To be honest, Naru is kind of a brat.  She's always butting in, climbing on things, repeating all the bad words she's not supposed to hear, and generally hanging off of Handa at every opportunity she gets.  While she gets a lot of screentime in the course of the volume, Yoshino never wears out her welcome with the reader (the same cannot be said for Handa).  She's cute, she's hilarious, but she never takes either quality to the extremes of obnoxiousness.  After all, she's not all that much different from the other villagers.  Oh sure, they're obvious a little more mature and understanding about Handa and his issues, but they still take every opportunity to barge in his door, ask naïve questions, spread gossip, and cosset him like a small child, and it's all played for gentle good humor.

This sounds like it could become a little cruel towards Handa, but it ultimately works because Handa himself is allowed to be less than perfect and more than a little silly himself.  He's a competent calligrapher, but he's bad at taking criticism, a sore loser, and doesn't really exert himself beyond what is necessary.  He's not exactly a good person.  Hell, if anything he's kind of an immature jerk.  Knowing that, the jokes that the rest of the cast make at his expense feel less like bullying and more like bringing a buffoon back down to earth.  He does make strides as a person as the story goes on.  He proves himself more than adept at handling the village kids, and he does start to warm a little to the other villagers when he sees how far out of their way they'll go to make him comfortable.  He even starts to find real inspiration in his work.  There's a sequence early on where a day out with Naru inspires an athletic bout of artistic inspiration, ending with "fun" writ large, the brushstrokes full of the energy Handa expended and experience.  Slowly but surely, the churlishness is melting from his heart and mind, and while it's not an instant transformation it's still a little heartwarming.

In some ways, this series reminds me of Kiyohiko Azuma's Yotsuba &!.  Both share a casual and humorous tone, along with a focus on the smaller, quainter things in life in conjunction with an adorable, quirky little girl.  That's where the similarities end, though.  Barakamon is faster, snappier, more verbal, and less whimsical than that series.  While it does capture some of the charms of small town life and adorable little kids, it doesn't idealize them either.  So while Barakamon may be built on a familiar formula, it still manages to find its own comedic voice.

ART:
While the artwork has a certain charm about it, it's also clear that this is Yoshino's first proper manga series.  The character designs are pleasant enough to look at and have a lot of variety in size, shape, and age, but they're also kind of stiff and the mouths are rather flappy.  Naru tends to be drawn in a style that verges upon super-deformed, as her eyes bug into blank circles and her focus is fixed upon whatever shiny new thing caught her attention.  The backgrounds are suitably well-drawn and homey, but perspectives and shading tend to be rather flat.  Still, it's always easy to follow and Yoshino is fond of layering in jokes in the background, usually in the form of Naru running around doing things.  Overall, like's Handa's calligraphy the artwork is a little rough around the edges but still good looking enough to get the job done.

RATING:
The charm and humor of the story go a long way towards smoothing out what few, minor issues can be found in the art.  As long as it never looses its slightly snarky spirit or overplays the trump card it has in Naru, I can see this becoming a must-read along the same line as Yotsuba&!.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 10 volumes available so far.  2 volumes have been published, and both are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this?  Leave a comment here to enter this year's Holiday Giveaway! The contest ends at midnight tomorrow, so don't delay!