Monday, February 25, 2013


As the month comes to an end, I decided to get away from the dating sim adaptations and towards a reverse harem that's more of a comedy.

THE WALLFLOWER (Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge), by Tomoko Hayakawa.  First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2004.

We beginning by meeting a group of 4 really, really, ridiculously good looking boys: hot-headed Kyohei, scaredy-cat Yuki, promiscuous, flirty Ranmaru, and calm, intelligent Takinaga.  They're currently living as renters in a fabulous mansion with an eccentric, world-hopping landlady.  One day she gives them an ultimatum: if they can turn her niece Sunako into a 'proper lady,' they can stay there rent-free for 3 years.  If they fail, then their rent will be tripled.  Well, surely this can't be a challenge for a bunch of lady-killers like them, whose very presence tends to send any woman nearby into a flurry of squees and swoons, right?  Wrong.  Sunako is a pasty, horror-obsessed hikkikomori who fears beautiful people as "creatures of light" that leave her blinded and bleeding from the nose.  Now all five must find a way to live with one another, and just maybe turn Sunako into the 'proper lady' of her aunt's dreams.

All comedies live or die on the strength of their cast, so it's a good thing that The Wallflower has a genuinely solid one.  Now it's true that most of them are not deep - my descriptions above are about as much as we learn about anyone.  They are distinct and varied, though, so there are plenty of ways to combine them in various situations and get different (if often silly) results.    Here the payoff isn't so much about the gimmick of turning Sunako into a 'proper lady,' but about watching Sunako and company save themselves from whatever situation they may have gotten themselves into, be it schoolgirls ganging up on Sunako, Kyohei getting kidnapped by a host club, or simply trying to get Sunako out of her room.  Luckily for the reader, the results are usually amusing.  If there's one thing that can be said for The Wallflower, it's that it's a reverse harem that does not take itself seriously, which in some ways makes it more endearing than other, more serious titles.

One thing you must be aware of before reading The Wallflower is that Hayakawa really, really, REALLY likes visual kei bands.  You know, the bands with the guys that are so made up and teased out that they take androgyny to new heights.  I have to mention this because if you don't know that, you may find the character designs for The Wallflower to be truly bizarre.

There are bishonen, and then there are the leads for The Wallflower with their wispy, stylishly tousled hair, enormous dark eyes, and full lips.  Unfortunately those good looks come at the cost of expressiveness, as anytime a big reaction is needed things switch over to a very plain chibi-mode.  Sometimes this approached is used for dramatic effect, as it is with Sunako.  Whenever she feels scared or unconfident, she's in chibi mode.  Whenever she briefly finds confidence, she's fully drawn and as equally beautiful as the boys.  When she's being scary (intentionally or otherwise), she's somewhere in the middle and looking particularly ghoulish.  The switch in appearances can be confusing at first, but it's pretty easy to grasp by volume's end.

Because of the heavy focus on the character's looks, there isn't much effort put into the backgrounds.  Instead, they tend to be blank or accented with a few effects or bit of screentone.  The pages are composed in a frantic, busy manner, with panels packed in top-to-bottom and left-to-right.  The panels themselves are fairly standard in size and shape, save for the splash panels to show off one of the guys being sexy or Sunako doing something awesome.  The sparseness of the panels helps to keep the pages from becoming a visual mess, and the franticness of the images works well with the tone of the story.

As per usual for a Del Ray/Kodansha work, there's an honorifics guide in the front and translation notes in the back.  There are also brief character profiles and an untranslated preview of Volume 2.

This series is one of my guilty pleasures.  It may not be deep or profound, but it's a fun popcorn-munching sort of series to read.

This series is published in the USA by Kodansha, formerly Del Ray.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 31 volumes published so far, all of them in print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, February 18, 2013


This week's selection is yet another adaptation of a visual novel, but does it soar about its source material like Alice or is it as flat as the paper it's written on?

UGLY DUCKLING'S LOVE REVOLUTION (Otometeki Koi Kakumei Love Revo!!), by Yuuki Fujinari.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2010. 

Saint Leaf School is home to many fine looking young men.  It is also home to one Hitomi Sakuragawa, a friendly young girl with a shortage of willpower when it comes to sweets, which means that she sadly as a figure as big and wide as her heart.  Still, her attempts at kindness and weight loss bring her into contact with half a dozen of the cutest boys in school.  Will Hitomi win them over on personality alone, or will this ugly duckling never exercise her way into becoming a swan?

I dreaded reading this series for a couple of reasons.  The first was that it was an adaptation of a dating sim, which usually means cookie-cutter characters stuck in a puddle-deep plot.  The second was that the heroine was overweight, and thus I expected a lot of jokes made at the expense of her weight.  I can say now that Ugly Duckling is not as bad as I feared - indeed, in some ways it's rather sweet.  It also kind of fails as a reverse harem, although that's not entirely a bad thing.

It fails as a reverse harem becuase ultimately this volume isn't about romance, no matter what the title might suggest.  It's really more about Hitomi and watching her come out of her social shell, making friends, and making sincere efforts at losing weight.  That last plot thread seems like a last-minute addition, though, as it comes about so suddenly that the first time I read it I had to flip back a few times, convinced I had missed a page or two.  It's a little strange because the first half really doesn't make Hitomi's weight an issue.  No one gives her any sort of a hassle because of it, which is also rather unexpected and refreshing.  It's good that Hitomi takes up exercise out of her own desire to improve her health versus social pressure, but a little more set-up would have made the transition much smoother.

This lack of romance may keep it from being pure female fanservice, but it's not necessarily a bad thing.  I rather appreciated how much time was spent developing Hitomi, demonstrating her kindness, thoughtfulness, and insecurities.  Unfortunately, Hitomi is the only character that gets any development, and here is where the story's dating sim roots shine through.  Hitomi is surrounded by half a dozen tropes - er, boys! I mean boys! - who are all touched by Hitomi's sweetness at one point or another.  There's the bitchy boy with issues, the spunky one, the quiet and sensitive one, and so on and so forth, and each of them barely qualify as one-dimensional, much less three.  Worse still, it takes Fujinama halfway through the volume to figure out how to fit all these guys into Hitomi's plotline, as before that point they seem to be occupying a completely seperate plotline.  Once they are blended, that doesn't really change the fact that there is no romantic tension between Hitomi and any of the boys; neither she nor any of the boys consider one another as anything beyond classmates and possibly friends at best.

Ugly Duckling is something of an odd duck, in that it's a reverse harem that's not about romance, but the lead character.  It's not a bad thing per se, but that lack of romantic focus leaves the supporting cast severely underdeveloped to the point of being superfluous.

Ugly Duckling may not make fun of its lead, but the artwork sadly does not take that high road.  While the rest of the cast is drawn in a convention, anime-influenced manner, Hitomi is drawn more like a crude caricature, complete with beady eyes, simple mouth, and big, bulbous nose.  This choice sadly undercuts some of the gentleness with which Hitomi is treated, because while the story goes out of its way to not mock her weight, the art goes out of its way to treat her differently and not as attractively as the others.

Mind you, even if Hitomi looked like the rest of the cast, she wouldn't necessarily look good, as the character designs are shockingly amateurish. I don't know how much of the blame can go to the mangaka and how much towards the game this series was based on, but they all look like someone's DeviantArt posting of their first attempts to draw bishonen.  The guys are all too crude looking and angular to be attractive, particularly when features start to disappear and faces go off-model during perspective changes.  The hair in particular is so flat and bizarrely sharp looking as to make it look like these boys are all wearing bad pieces of sculpture on their heads.

Beyond the ugly character designs, the rest of the art is unremarkable.  Backgrounds are practically nonexistant, fading instead into gentle gradiations of screen tones.  Panel and page composition are simple and straightforward.  Ultimately it's disappointing to see such lazy and amateurish art attached to such an unusual story, because it actually detracts from the story and its messages instead of enhancing them.

There are a couple of color pages in the front, along with an author's note and a splash page in the back.

I would have been willing to move this up to a yellow light based on how sensitively and sweetly it developed its heroine, but the awful character designs and lackluster cast dragged it down to a red light.

This series was published by Yen Press.  All four volumes were released, and all are currently in print.

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

Friday, February 15, 2013


It's difficult to find a reverse harem that's only a single volume, as most tend to catch on well enough to be published in full.  Well, I managed to find one, although now I wonder if my efforts were worth it.

THE BEAUTIFUL SKIES OF HOUOU HIGH (Houou Gakuen MiSORAgumi), by Arata Aki.  First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2011.

Kei is a tomboyish lesbian who keeps striking out with girls.  Kei's mother believes her daughter's lesbianism is simply a phase (despite the fact that being around men literally makes Kei nauseous), and her idea of a 'cure' is to secretly enlist her daughter into Houou High, a prestigious all-male high school.  The chairman of the school is in on her mother's scheme, and not only refuses to let Kei transfer out, but she must keep her gender a secret OR ELSE.  The only person aware of Kei's gender is her roommate Yui, the scion of a medical magnate who is also a manipulative little sociopath.  Now Kei has to find a way to survive what feels like her own personal hell, all while dealing with her other classmates and Yui's own schemes.

This series feels like what happens when someone sits down and thinks "What if I crossed Maria Holic with a reverse harem and sucked out everything that might be sympathy inducing or funny?"

Houou High clearly believes itself to be a dark comedy, and while it's got some darker elements, it completely fails as a comedy.  I think it's because poor Kei never gets the slightest break from all the mean-spirited mockery.  Her sexuality, her boyish looks and figure, her naivite - all are played off as cruel jokes by one character or another.  Kei's mother is shallow and selfish, wanting her daughter to change orientation solely so she can have grandkids in the future.  She calls her daughter "an imitation of a man" in her own relationships, and she flat-out tricks her daughter into attending Houou High in the hopes of curing Kei's lesbianism and Kei snagging a rich husband to boot.  It's safe to say that her mother would not be winning LGBTQ Ally of the Year.

It only gets worse once Kei gets to the school, because she's stuck with the spoiled, horrid Yui, a guy who sees Kei as a toy, something he can manipulate, stalk, and abuse as he wishes because he's used to getting his way in all things.  His moods shift on a dime from 'sweet and friendly' to 'psycho', which the mangaka attempts to treat as humor but instead it comes off as disturbing and irritating.  The closest thing Kei has a to a friend is Kousuke, a big, thuggish guy who turns out to love the same bizarrely sexy ripoff of Hello Kitty that Kei does.  He's also so dense and good-natured that he can't tell that his best friend Yui is manipulating him and others.  There's also a couple of middle-school mad scientist twins who go after Kei, as well as the strange and masochistic Kirie, who is jealous of the attention Yui gives to Kei and wants to be the focus of Yui's abuse  I think the gag is that everyone but Kousuke is out to get Kei for one reason or another, and that everything is just so over-the-top that it's supposed to be funny.  The problem is that 'outrageous' on its own does not equal 'hilarious.'  You have to make some effort to write actual jokes, and mocking the lead and no one else does not count as a joke.  It doesn't even capitalize on the notion that Kei is stuck in a reverse harem that she couldn't care less for - a more self-aware writer might use this as a jumping point for humor or satire, but Aki prefers to pick on the lesbian and call it funny.

Let me use a more familiar Western series to put into perspective why Houou High fails as a comedy.  It's not funny onto itself that Lucy keeps pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, but what makes it funny is that Lucy can keep coming up with new ways to get Charlie Brown to try and kick the ball, or that Charlie Brown can keep finding new ways to convince himself that this time it will be different.  Black comedies like Houou High need a bit of a silver lining and some effort put into the comedy to temper its darkness, or else the darkness will swallow the story completely and the humor will be lost.

Aki didn't put much more effort into the artwork, as the character designs are very basic, androgynous, and flat in their expressions.  She also abuses her own version of super-deformed, where everyone tends to have the same "O<>O" face regardless of the situation.  Sure, there's a nice variety in the panel sizes and a little bit of layering with the panels, but they're full of boring looking characters and equally boring backgrounds, most of which are composed of screen tones and effects.  Houou High's story may be offensive, but its art is just plain dull.

There's an omake where the mangaka spends more time talking about the creation of Usasy (the weird sexy Hello Kitty ripoff) than the manga itself, which explains a lot about the quality of the manga as a whole.

This is the most mean-spirited reverse harem I've ever seen, and its jokes and art are equally lazy.  The Beautiful Skies of Houou High is not the least bit beautiful nor the least bit funny, and I'm not surprised we never got more than a single volume.

This series was published in the USA by Digital Manga Publishing.  1 of 4 available volumes were published, and is currently in print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, February 11, 2013


Now that I've gotten Fushigi Yugi out of my system, I want to focus on something better, something more positive, even a little unconventional.  Who would have guessed that I could find that in a manga adapted from a visual novel?

ALICE IN THE COUNTRY OF HEARTS (Hato no Kuni no Arisu), adapted from the visual novel by QuinRose and drawn by Soumei Hoshino.  First published in 2007, and first published in North America in 2010.

A young girl dozes off in a country garden, only to discover a white rabbit in a waistcoat and a pocketwatch.  This all sounds very familiar, right?  Well, it gets far less familiar once the rabbit turns into a bunny-eared man who snatches Alice into Wonderland and tricks her into drinking a vial of liquid which leaves her trapped in Wonderland until she finishes 'the game.'  Alice isn't entirely clear on what this game is, but she quickly learns it involves the struggle for control between three factions: Heart Castle, a mad amusement park, and Clock Tower Plaza, which includes the Mad Hatter's mafia that sides with no one but themselves.  The denizens of Wonderland have been (mostly) replaced with attractive young men, all of which are armed and more than willing to engage in gunfights as part of 'the game.'  It's also part of 'the game' that all of these gun-toting hotties will all fall for her, which they tell Alice outright.  In the meantime, Alice is determined to figure out just what is going on and how to get herself home.

I didn't have high expectations for this series, being both a reverse harem and an adaptation of a visual novel.  What's curious is that Alice doesn't just manage to meet those expectations, but actually exceed them.

The first question one has to ask is "Does this work as an adaptation of Alice In Wonderland?"  The answer to that is "Oh goodness, no."  If you were expecting a simple retelling of Alice In Wonderland where everyone but Alice and the Queen of Hearts is a bishonen, you're in for a disappointment.  The weird thing is that I actually respect this manga more for taking all the familiar characters and set-ups of the original work and doing its own twisted take on things.  "Twisted" is definitely the operative word here, as I certainly wouldn't have expected so much violence in what is normally such a fluffy, candy-colored genre, and for once the Queen of Hearts is not the most violent person around. Of course, being set in Wonderland, these gunfights are not fought on normal terms, and nothing is taken too seriously.  After all, to them it's all part of 'the game,' a plot thread which serves as a wink and nod to the manga's visual novel roots.

The writing itself isn't taking things too seriously either, which is to the manga's benefit.  Alice is surprisingly proactive and skeptical for a shoujo heroine.  She doesn't sit around mooning over the guys, wondering why her heart is beating faster.  Instead, she is trying to gather as much information about this world and this 'game' as she can, while doing her best to keep the peace amongst this gaggle of psychopaths and keep the bloodshed around her to a minimum.  She's also mostly convinced that this world is simply a vision of her own lonely subconscious, which also makes Alice unusually self-aware for a shoujo heroine.  The rest of cast varies - some are cheerful (Ace, Elliott the March Hare, Mary Gowland), some are mysterious (the Hatter, Julius the Clock Tower keeper), some annoying (Peter White, the white rabbit), but all are strange and mercutial, leaping from pleasant conversation to threats to declarations of love within a scene.

As this is a work that has been licence rescued and retranslated, I must note that there are differences in the translation.  Tokyopop's translation is irregular in quality, as for every fine touch it adds (such as making most of Peter's dialogue rhyme in an excellently written, unforced manner), it also add modern slang which sticks out like a sore thumb.  The Yen Press translation is more even in quality, but it lacks the personality of the Tokyopop take on the dialogue.

Alice In the Country of Hearts is a refreshingly self-aware take on the reverse harem, led by a lead who is both smart and even a little cynical.  It combines both its source material and its digital origins into something strange and new, and I found myself liking it all the more for straying away from the paths of the original story and from your standard reverse harem.

I wish I could say that I was enchanted with the artwork as I was with the story.  The character designs are a bit generic and plain, even if they are dressed in what looks like a combination of steampunk, Hot Topic goth, and punk.  I suspect this is done not only for the sake of being fancy, but because Hoshino can only draw one kind of bishonen face and has to dress it up a lot to distinguish the cast.  It's an expressive one, at least, even if the expressions are broad, so it's not a major failing.  The pages and panels are presented in a rather straightforward manner.  Backgrounds are nicely drawn and fairly frequent, and each section of Wonderland is visually distinct, right down to their faceless minions.

Alice in the Country of Hearts isn't all that interesting visually, but it gets the job done in an efficient and nondistracting sort of way.

There are no extras of note in the Tokyopop single volumes.  The Yen Press reprint is done in 2-in-1 omnibuses, with a couple of color splash pages in the front.

I expected nothing but silly, shallow fluff from this series, but its darker, stranger, and more metatextual edges give this Victorian-flavored tale enough character to make it genuinely, unironically entertaining.

This series was published by Tokyopop and is now published by Yen Press.  5 of the 6 available volumes were published by Tokyopop, and all are now out of print.  All 6 have been published by Yen Press and are currently in print.

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

Monday, February 4, 2013


It's February, which means that when we are not collectively trying to keep various appendages from freezing off, our hearts and minds are focused on one thing: CHEAP POST VALENTINE'S DAY CANDY!

Er, love.  I totally meant love.

Specifically, it's a time when loved ones give one another presents, and in Japan specifically it's a time where girls give their loved ones craploads of chocolate.  As I do not have a warehouse of chocolate to share with my readers, I decided to give you a different sort of gift: reverse harems!

This month, it's all about the ladies and the gaggle of stereotypes bishonen men that surround them.  We kick things off with one of the classics of this genre, but can it hold up to modern tastes?

FUSHIGI YUGI, by Yuu Watase.  First published in 1992, and first published in North America in 1999.

Miaka is an underachieving student who would rather focus on a good meal and cute boys than on studying.  This becomes a problem, as Miaka wants to go to the same high school as her brainy best friend Yui, but Miaka's mother keeps hinting that she wants Miaka to attend a more prestigious, academically rigorous ones.  During a study session, Yui and Miaka stumble upon an ancient book in the restricted section called "The Universe of the Four Gods."  The next thing they know, they are plunged into the universe of the book itself, where they are immediately assaulted by a wandering band of slave traders.  They are saved almost instantly by a mysterious, handsome young man, who in turns immediately demands repayment for his services.  The girls are sucked back into their own world, and Miaka's thoughts are consumed with that their mystery rogue.  Miaka and her mother have a fight, and Miaka runs away to the library, back to the book and the universe within it.  She meets up with her rogue, Tamahome, and by luck they stumble into an audience with the Emperor Hotohori.  The Emperor believes Miaka to be the prophetized Priestess of Suzaku, who will gather seven holy warriors and gain the power to grant any wish, and Miaka soon finds herself in the middle of an adventure straight out of a storybook.

Sometimes I have to wonder why it is so very difficult to find decent heroines in shoujo manga, as far too many tend to be quivering, insecure jellyfish or annoyingly incompetent.  I also have to wonder why there is such a shortage of decent love interests for those heroines, because they have an alarming tendancy to be inhumanly perfect, irritatingly moody, or rather on the rapey controlling side.  What does this have to do with the story of Fushigi Yugi?  Quite a lot, because a lot of my issues with it stem from its heroine and her love interest.

Let's begin with Miaka.  To be honest, I couldn't stand her.  It's not because she's rather dense and that her appetite is played for laughs, even if I have wonder why Japan finds the notion of girls eating a lot utterly hilarious.  No, the reason I hate her is that like the worst of shoujo heroines, she's utterly hapless.  She wanders into danger without a thought for herself or her safety - seriously, you could almost make a drinking game out of all the times Miaka is assaulted by others (apparently this universe is crawling with roving rape squads).   She trusts complete strangers, even when anyone with two brain cells to rub together could tell that a person was dangerous.  Seriously, was this girl never taught Stranger Danger?  She is always dependent upon others (usually Tamahome) to save her.  I'm not asking that she should be some badass action girl, but giving her a bit of common sense would have gone a long way towards making Miaka a better character.

She's also rather a rather selfish character, although you could joke that this isn't so much a flaw as it is part of being a teenager.  When given the opportunity to grant any wish, does she think about getting herself home to the friends and family who miss her?  Nope!  She thinks about making herself beautiful! Or having a massive feast!  Or getting into any high school she wants!  Way to think big Miaka!  But then, why shouldn't she be selfish when the story pretty much hands her everything on a silver platter, to the point where I wondered if her name should be "Miaka" or "Mary Sue."  Getting pressure from your parents about your future?  No need to confront them about it, just run away to the fantasy world to find some hot guy you knew for all of a few minutes.   Need to find a bunch of holy warriors to make your wish come true?  It's Ok, you'll get three of them right off the bat, and two out of the three totally want to get into your panties.  The only challenges she ever faces are those involving sexual assault, and those she creates herself by being blazingly stupid and strolling straight into danger.

Finally, I have to questions why on earth she falls so quickly for Tamahome.  It's not because of his charm, because he and Miaka fight like cats and dogs throughout the story.  It's not his good nature, because he's also selfish, douchey and obsessed with money.  As far as I can tell, Miaka's only reasons for loving Tamahome are "he is hot and I want to bang him" and "he saves my dumb ass every 10 minutes from the roving rape squads."  That is not love.  That is a combination of lust and gratitude, and it's a piss poor basis for a relationship. 

I wish I had kinder words for the rest of the cast, but for the most part I do not.  I've already gone over my issues with Tamahome above, but his fellow warriors are no better; Hotohori is a cipher of a man, and Nuriko (the cross-dressing courtier who lusts for the Emperor and Tamahome) is spiteful and even a little childish.  The only person I came out of this volume liking was Yui, who was concerned for her friend and smart enough to put together than when strange supernatural events start happening to her, there must be some connection to Miaka.  I also have to question the logic of bringing Miaka out of the story, only to bring her right back within the next chapter.  Watase and her editors could have saved themselves a few pages if they just had Miaka fight with her mother before the study session that led to her getting sucked into the book in the first place.

I could rant this for ages, but I must stop at some point.  Fushigi Yugi fails as a story because the heroine is a black hole of ineptitude that sucks everything into an abyss, including the story, which becomes little more than wish-fulfillment for her instead of the reader.

Watase's writing may drive me up the wall, but her art leaves me more ambivalent.  Her character designs are okay, if rather conventional.  Of course, she seems to be able to draw only one handsome male face and just keeps dressing it up for different characters, and her faces are rather simplistic to begin with and often exaggerated in their expressions.  Backgrounds are rather middling and infrequent as well, although she does bring in more detail once Miaka and company get to the palace.  She does have the good sense to save the screen tones and effects for the goofier moments, instead of using to telegraph every single emotional moment.  There's not a lot of action to be seen, and most of it involves a lot of stiff poses and speed lines.  All in all, it's not spectacular enough to outshine the story but neither does it hinder it.

I read this from the single volume Viz release, so outside of a sound effects guide in the back, there are no extras to speak off.  I know this series has been rereleased in VizBiz omnibuses, which means those would likely feature color artwork, but I cannot speak at this time to any differences between the two.

I honestly can't believe this is held up as a shoujo classic, because from what I've seen Fushigi Yugi is so very, very weak.  I suspect its classic status comes more from nostalgia and the desperation of a time when shoujo was not easily found on the North American manga market than from any superior or timeless quality in the story or artwork.

This series was released in the USA by Viz.  All 18 volumes have been released, and all are currently in print.

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