Since the first edition of this column, there’s been a lot of shifting priority in my reading list.
I haven’t acquired new volumes of Harold Sakuishi’s mangaka bildungsroman Rin, Jun Watanabe’s thriller Montage, or Mitsuru Adachi’s latest baseball drama Mix, for one. Mix has recently slid down my priority order, while there’s no new volume for the other two in months. I’m mostly okay with that, seeing that the other on-going and new series I’ve picked up along the way more than make up for it (after all, both Rin and Montage didn’t even crack the Honorable Mentions in my top manga list from last year). Speaking of that list, a few entries from there now make their proper appearances!
Akatsuki no Yona: The Girl Standing in The Blush of Dawn (Mizuho Kusanagi, Vol. 8-10)
I picked this up right where the anime left off (beginning of Volume 8), after skimming through the early adapted part of the manga for comparison’s sake. Doing the latter has elevated my appreciation for Pierrot’s work, which turns out to be a a great and faithful adaptation, nailing the most important stuff and making nearly all the right decisions in emphasizing and re-arranging certain events. With the FullSquad assembled, Kusanagi continues to show Yona’s rapid growth in stature and initiative, taking cues from the pirate-leading Lady Gigan to re-brand her party as a group of benevolent Robin Hood-esque bandits, all while insisting to practice swordplay (much to Hak’s chagrin). Speaking of Hak, the teasings continue with him and Yona, and at this point I guess it’s a matter of whether Yona could overcome their master-servant boundary before Hak inevitably dies a noble death, repressed feelings and all.
Besides Yona, Shin-Ah the Blue Dragon also gets into the spotlight, unleashing the horrifying power of his eyes in Volume 9. My favorite part of these volumes has to be the Fire Tribe’s wimpy second prince Tae-Jun though, who turns up again to get a boatload of Character Development after we last see him mourning the (non-)death of his beloved Yona. Tae-Jun eventually matures from a lovestruck fool into someone who’s finally become aware of his responsibilities and step up to the plate to assist his suffering tribesmen. Shoujo fantasy these days seems to be quite fond in forcing its moronic prince character (and former designated butt monkey) to grow up, with Akagami no Shirayukihime doing practically the same thing with its Prince Raj, but Tae-Jun really shines here through masterful combination of great comedy sequence (with his new bodyguard and deadpan artist Heuk-Chi, who has to be the funniest character in the story so far) and genuinely moving drama. It’s a steady and believable growth, all the way from his hilarious reunion with Yona to their bittersweet parting.
Kusanagi is doing a great job in general: giving more glimpses of the land, fleshing out the cast in very balanced manner, and slowly setting things up for the inevitable collision course between Yona’s group and the tainted king Soo-Won, who has formed a formidable alliance with Earth Tribe stalwart Geun-Tae. The only thing that feels a bit amiss for now is the Yellow Dragon: Zeno’s entrance is just as anti-climactic as the anime version, and we don’t know anything about him yet besides that he’s apparently got awesome body endurance—which doesn’t really help in combat (or anything) at least so far. I’m sure he’s going to eventually get his moment though and we’ll see what really lies beyond that carefree smile.
Laughing Under The Clouds/Donten ni Warau (Karakara Kemuri, Vol. 1-3)
As someone who can ill afford too many long-running series on his purchase list, I certainly could use more stuff like Clouds: a tidy and dense 6-volume series that weaved in a high number of plot threads and characters in satisfying manner. Set in the Meiji Restoration era (same setting as the much beloved Rurouni Kenshin), it highlights a period of transition and uncertainty rife with unemployed samurai, masterless ninja, and rampaging criminals. The focus is very much on character drama though, with three sibling protagonists (Tenka, Soramaru, Chutarou) taking the central role. Supernatural intrigue and swordplay action abound, and fans of bishounen should also be more than satisfied with the character art (*it also has a couple of striking female character design in Botan and especially the monochromatic ninja Nishiki).
As I noted in the annual manga list (where it ranked #6), Karakara Kemuri has a good eye for pacing. Her characters and narrative developments make their mark quickly and effectively, sustaining forward momentum with surprises and intrigue constantly coming. The big twists at the end of Volume 2 and 3 are the highlights so far, and with all the pieces seemingly done being set up, I’m looking forward to the narrative culmination in the last two volumes where brotherhood, loyalty, and the nation’s fate are at stakes.
Orange (Ichigo Takano, Vol. 1-3)
This is another one of those ‘rewind the past and save your darling’ story. Unlike the likes of Steins;Gate and the recently airing Erased though (I love the latter so far and is very much not a fan of the former, by the way), Ichigo Takano’s manga is comparatively more grounded in its time-bending concept: high-school sophomore Naho received a letter from her future self that instruct her, along with her close circle of friends, to prevent the suicide of new student and her secret crush Kakeru. It’s a great premise, although the execution occasionally feels a bit too lightweight for that kind of theme. The art, characters, and romantic aspect don’t really grab me, but they’re cute and endearing, and as a whole I certainly recommend this manga for its wistful prose and tone. As of the third volume, there’s been some interesting developments and causal implications for Naho’s actions, which certainly keep me interested to see how it concludes in two more volumes.
These volumes also come with bonus story Spring Coloured Astronaut, a fluffy love pentagon involving a couple of twin girls and their three radically different suitors. It runs simultaneously with the main story and I guess will also conclude at the same volume.
The Phantom Tower/Yuureitou (Taro Nogizaka, Vol. 1-2)
Another entry from the Top Manga of 2015, this is a prototypical Japanese psycho-sexual mystery. People being murdered and displayed in unnecessarily elaborate fashion? Check. Sinister misshapen figure, who would fit right in survival horror games circa 1990s, lurching in the shadows? Check. Dudes/ladies with evil/seductive grins, weird fetish, and fucked-up sexual dynamics? Triple check.
Amano, the story’s protagonist, doesn’t exactly endear himself to me at first. I have little patience for male protagonist with overly exaggerated masculinity OR spinelessness, and Amano belongs to the latter end of the spectrum, giving an awful first impression as a cowardly hikikomori who constantly throws himself a pity party. Luckily, he does get better by the end of Vol. 1, thanks in no small part to his intriguing sidekick manipulator Tetsuo, a very beautiful man who appears out of nowhere to bail Amano from an awkward encounter with former classmates and promises him untold riches from a secret treasure buried in the city. The catch: they may cross path with a notorious murderer from the past who loves to tie people on the hands of a giant clock tower. That, and Tetsuo has a bunch of things up his sleeve.
The first volume is one of the strongest opening volumes I’ve read last year, but the second volume feels like it’s weakening with a detour to murder mystery (a different one) island and encounter with a crazy scientist and his robot assistant. Yeah. The main mystery remains compelling and suspenseful though, and Vol. 2 does end with interesting moral quandary for our protagonists. What surprised me the most is Nogizaka’s big twist for the readers (and one that the main character Amano is currently oblivious to), which feels a bit premature to pull off, but nonetheless should lead down some fascinating paths. Let’s just say things would probably get more sexual from now on.
Barakamon (Satsuki Yoshino, Vol. 4-5)
They’re translating and getting this out very quickly, and I’m sure not complaining. The fifth volume ends with a nice festival moment and a rare cliffhanger as Handa returns home without a notice, while the fourth volume might be my favorite edition of Barakamon yet. It has everything: a couple of the best Handa gags in the series (the rotary dial struggle, the one where he blocks out all possible entrances for unwelcome morning invaders only to find out that basically everyone has duplicate keys to his house), cozy interplay comedy with dragonfly chase and calligraphy lesson, a great art-themed story as Handa tackles a titanic assignment from Miwa’s father, and nice individual moments for Tama, Naru, Hiro, and Akki.
The best kind of slice-of-life comedy is one that doesn’t have to rely on one single element all the time. Barakamon might rely on Naru being an adorable brat as its initial hook, but the longer it goes and the more you see from other characters, it becomes a very well-rounded series that could always charms me on its every turn. That’s why I’m also eager to eventually check out Satsuki Yoshino’s prequel manga (and upcoming anime adaptation) Handa-kun, despite the lack of Naru or countryside setting—she’s firmly proven her exceptional knack for low key heart-warming comedy.