by Banri Hidaka
published by Tokyopop; $9.99 - $10.99 US
After reading and enjoying Book 7 of this series, I knew I had to catch up on the previous volumes. According to an introductory author’s note, Banri Hidaka created this shojo series while working on Tears of a Lamb as a kind of mind-clearing escapism.
It’s the story of Ageha, a high-school girl whose older sister has just announced she’s pregnant. Like many girls, Ageha dreamed of her someday white wedding, where she would resemble a fairy princess. Her big sister Hibari was always someone to be idolized and admired, until now. Ageha’s shocked, even though her sister and her boyfriend are planning to marry. She’s jealous and afraid of what Hibari’s life changes will do to their relationship, and she’s also having to face her selfishness, wanting to keep her sister to herself.
This situation wraps together plenty of young girl hopes, fears, and dreams, creating an immediately approachable character in Ageha. She’s young but fierce, full of self-determination. She’s also quite talented, making her own bags and backpacks with a designer’s flair, marked with a butterfly (after her name). They’re so well-made that she’s developed a reputation as a mystery accessory maker.
These two pieces of her life come together as Hibari plans her wedding, which brings them to Velvet Blue Rose, the bridal shop of the title. It’s run by two gorgeous men: Yukari is the designer and the darker Mitsuya makes the patterns. And they’re both fans of her work, although they didn’t know Ageha made the bags they admired.
Aside from the fashion fun, another thing I like about this title is how people react when faced with upsetting revelations. They own their emotions, recognizing them, making changes, growing up and moving on. Ageha often backslides — after all, exploring emotion is a key part of these kinds of stories — but those who care about her know they do her no favors to indulge her.
The art is conventional shojo, lots of faces and big sparkly eyes and expressions with decorated backgrounds to add visual emphasis. It’s easy to read and does a wonderful job portraying the fashions that are so important to the story, whether fancy dresses or everyday clothes. Plus, I love Ageha’s long wavy hair and the calm maturity of Hibari’s expressions.
Yukari fascinates Ageha, and his calm, measured praise means more to her than the exaggerations of her friends. (In contrast, Mitsuya is playful and excitable.) Most importantly, Yukari doesn’t take any guff. When Ageha’s impulsiveness hurts Mitsuya, Ageha volunteers to work at the store to make up for it and be part of her sister’s wedding. Working with Yukari should be good for her — he’s strict but caring. They all work hard to give brides a happy, wonderful day.
Book two presents Hibari’s wedding. Ageha and Yukari must get her dress to her in time for the ceremony, making for a suspenseful day and a eventual happy reconciliation. Plus, plenty of gorgeous drawings of her gown.
Ageha agrees to continue working at the store because there are hints of feelings between her and Yukari, although at first it’s on the level of simply encouraging each other. And sometimes it’s insane overreaction, providing plenty of humor. Ageha, Yukari, and Mitsuya are developing into a girly workplace comedy. Mitsuya is the wacky comic relief, hitting on Ageha in silly ways, while her relationship with Yukari is more heart-warming (or emotional in other ways).
Ageha refers to the shop as “the sparkly world”, a place all about beauty and glamor. She desires to be part of it as a full contributor, and she’s obsessed with Yukari and Mitsuya because of the way they’re obsessed with their work. Others see better than she does how much like them she is. Right now, she thinks of Yukari annoying her more than any other emotion, and he knows she’s still in high school.
Mitsuya has a younger brother, estranged from him due to his “girly” dress work, and Ageha tries to bring the two of them together, demonstrating two of the essential shojo heroine characteristics: care for others, so a desire to prevent them from being in painful situations, and pig-headedness. It doesn’t matter who tells her she might not should interfere, or that her actions could backfire. She’s going to bring them together anyway!
Also in this book, we first meet Nat-chan, the younger brother of Ageha’s best friend. He plays more of a role in books to come. I began noticing more and more the little scribbled-in comments at the edges of the panels, asides elaborating on character reactions or explaining a detail or showing the emotions people don’t say. They add another level of reading entertainment and knowledge about the cast.
Reuniting Mitsuya with his brother takes more of a focus in book three, as Ageha continues scheming to make things work out for the best. She relates, you see, because of the lessons she learned dealing with her own jealousy and hurt feelings when her older sister moved on with her life. Mitsuya’s brother additionally has the concern about his brother’s work not being manly enough; Ageha chews him out for his generalizations because she knows just how hard the V.B. Rose staff works.
She wants badly to fit in with the two friends, because she’s found a place she thinks she belongs. When they give her more tasks to do, especially when it’s one suited to her special skills, she rejoices. She’s going to make teddy bear versions that wear the same gown as the bride customers. So cute!
She’s also warned off of her growing crush on Yukari. She’s far from the first girl to work part time and find the boss dreamy. She’s never had a relationship, and she needs to make sure she’s picking the right one, with guidance from the true love model of her sister. We learn a lot more about Yukari’s family, and how he became the way he is. I really appreciate the way Yukari encourages Ageha, both in her work and in expressing herself to others without being afraid of the consequences.
It’s summer vacation in book four, which means more time for Ageha to work at the shop. First up is a dress-up session, as the store girls try on sample gowns to determine what to order. Banri Hidaka does a wonderful job presenting these kinds of fantasy concepts — you have to pose in gorgeous bridal dresses! — in vaguely plausible situations where they can be indulged in without seeming selfish or self-centered. Ageha is doing this task for work, as a favor to the guys who need her help in seeing what the gowns look like on a person. Then Hidaka lightens the mood, by putting in silly, girly jokes, or drops in moments of feeling, as Ageha reflects on the key characteristics of her co-workers.
This volume really dives into the mesmerizing visuals of the ceremony, as Ageha attends a bridal fair to demonstrate all the aspects and traditions of a wedding. It also advances the relationship between Ageha and Yukari, as her talk of Nat-chan’s friendly gestures begins to make her boss jealous. I adored one particular panel where Yukari sounds off to Mitsuya: “I have a complicated personality,” he states, as he grabs his head in his arms and the background is filled with spirals. Other significant events in this book include a demonstration wedding ceremony and a bowling game.
Book five has Ageha and Yukari pondering their feelings after a date together doesn’t go quite as expected. Then comes the introduction of a new character. (The author isn’t afraid to keep expanding the cast to keep things fresh.) Tsuyu is an old classmate of Yukari’s; she does beadwork for the store; and she’s something of a weirdo who says whatever she’s thinking. Visually, she’s the opposite of Ageha in every way — short, straight black hair, glasses, trim figure in sleek fashions instead of schoolgirl skirts — but they both have a tendency to act before thinking in charmingly odd ways, both are cared for by Yukari, and both make lovely craftwork.
By this point, Ageha and Yukari are definitely interested in each other, but their feelings keep getting either confused or distracted by new characters and situations, including the birth of Ageha’s sister’s baby. The shojo is running smoothly in formula, focusing on emotional confusion with plenty of happy signals to keep the characters and readers interested and moving forward.
Book six brings another example of that formula: the school festival. Ageha takes Yukari and Mitsuya to see her best friend’s cafe. That’s an opportunity for other supporting characters to reappear and for Nat-chan to subtly insert some distance between Ageha and Yukari. (It’s a long-running series, so happiness can’t appear easily or quickly.) Yukari’s big conflict is that he loves his work so much, he’s not sure there’s room to share his life with anyone else, or that there’s enough left over for them.
The book ends with a joint birthday party for the three co-workers, which leads into the dramatic events of book seven. They all have such fun together that the series overall is a pleasure to read and enjoy. (The publisher provided review copies.)