A triplet of titles that have cemented their place on my primary bookshelf. High fives all around!
Koe no Katachi/The Shape of Voice (Yoshitoki Oima, Vol. 4-5)
I looked at that cover above and thought to myself, “Oh it’s nice to see these two are smiling like that, guess happy things happened in this volume”. Really got me fooled there.
Some important things happened in these two volumes: Shouko and Yuzuru’s grandma (as well as the sisters’ lifelong emotional support) passed, while the main cast now included new character Mashiba, a deceptively easygoing guy with deep distaste toward bullies, and another old ‘friend’ in the sickeningly sweet Kawaii (also a big challenger against Ueno’s bid in being the least sympathetic character). Nagatsuka’s indie film project started in earnest, leading to a lot of petty in-fighting, re-surfacing old wounds, and a suicide attempt. Remember, aspiring filmmakers, try not to have crewmembers who despise each other’s guts.
The film itself is less important (although there’s a fun glimpse of what the plot outline looks like, which is basically Nagatsuka’s wish fulfillment fantasy) than the conflicting emotions that everyone are experiencing. Shouya got to have a temporary bliss for re-discovering a sense of belonging, but this new structure is built on extremely fragile foundation, and soon enough it devolves into a contest of who can hurt each other the most. In the process, I grow to admire Yoshitoki Oima’s unapologetically honest portrayal of the characters even more; Ueno openly and frequently voicing her contempt toward Shouko, Nagatsuka being the sort of clingy friend that everyone like to mock, Kawai more concerned in maintaining her image over anything, and of course there’s Shouko, falling apart more quietly and thoroughly than anyone else.
There’s a valid argument that Oima shouldn’t divide the focus on Shouya and Shouko by covering the side characters’ drama, but I do feel it’s important to highlight Shouya’s relationship with various other characters and the very contentious dynamic between these significantly flawed teenagers. Voice isn’t a feel-good love story between a girl and her former tormentor, and it absolutely shouldn’t be, as these volumes aptly demonstrated how the process of ‘changing yourself into a better person’ doesn’t automatically happen just because you decided to do so. Really looking forward to the last two volumes.
Donten ni Warau/Laughing Under The Clouds (Karakara Kemuri, Vol. 4-6)
I had praised the manga’s efficient story-telling before, and this largely stayed true as the second half of Karakara Kemuri’s period action drama finishes on a satisfactory note. Separation is a big theme following the loss of a constant pillar by the end of volume 3, and as new connections and revelations are made, the plot continues to build up toward a big confrontation that involves at least a dozen characters. The final showdown in the last volume feels a bit half-baked as action scenes aren’t exactly Kemuri’s forte, but in any case Clouds has always been a work that emphasized character development and feelings over exciting battles (despite the abundance of male protagonists and confrontation-heavy backdrop, this is still a shoujo manga ).
The big twists (the Orochi reveal, the ‘return from dead’ moment, and the unmasking of the main villain) aren’t likely to surprise genre-savvy readers too much, but they’re executed well and you don’t ever get the sense that the author’s pulling one out of their arse. All the major and supporting characters got their healthy share of moments, and I also appreciate that there’s a lack of cardboard villain. In the end, it’s about finding your place to belong and exorcising the demons of the past; this thematic thread, along with the transitional turmoil of Meiji Restoration as a backdrop, recalls to my mind Rurouni Kenshin. Clouds may be a lite version of that classic series, but it’s a pretty fun ride in its half a dozen volumes (last volume wrapped things up neatly, but there’s plenty of room for Kemuri to follow up with some sort of continuation or side-story).
Mix (Mitsuru Adachi, Vol. 5-6)
After finally grabbing these two volumes and re-read the whole thing, I’m starting to warm up to Mix. In retrospect, I may have been too harsh on the manga’s first four volumes; while it moves at a glacial pace and there’s still very little an Adachi fan haven’t seen before, these characters have now gained enough texture to become compelling individuals on their own rights. Adachi’s signature strengths are shining as well: the understated character drama, sweet childhood flashbacks, and entertaining supporting characters. We’ve got a couple of exciting rival characters now, and there’s (finally) an official baseball match by the end of volume 6.
I guess it also helped that Adachi seems to step away from the potentially icky step-sibling romance. In general, the thematic emphasis of this manga focused more on sibling relationship (besides the core mixed family, the recent volumes also introduced a couple more pairs of sibling) over romance, and that’s something I can really get behind. Mix haven’t come anything close to the level of intimacy and emotional depth showcased in Cross Game or Touch, and it may as well never going to be (those two are pretty much fantastic right off the bat), but a B-level Adachi is still a solid series that justifies a long-term investment.