published by Vertical
published by Tokyopop
published by Viz
published by Yen Press
During the busy year-end/new start period, sometimes all I’m looking for is a bit of escapism, a read to take me away from mundane tasks and into another world. That might be as simple as envisioning how life would be with a pet I can’t have, or as far-reaching as imagining a job as a gondolier on another planet in the future. Those kinds of stories give me a break from worries, the best kind of manga read. Here are some notes on some of my favorite series to relax with, all released recently.
Chi’s Sweet Home Books 3 and 4
by Konami Kanata, Vertical, $13.95 US
The “cute cat comic” continues with some family changes. As Book 3 starts, the big black cat introduced in Book 2 is teaching kitten Chi how to open doors on her own, not an action that’s a particularly good idea. The black cat is the source of all trouble, Chi’s inappropriate parent figure, showing how to mark territory and hunt birds and other ways to annoy people. That indicates how animal instincts don’t always match people preferences.
The kitty’s inner monologue, populated with extra letters, is still just this side of being cloyingly cute, as Chi ponders “gowing for a walk” or thinks something’s “scarewy” or congratulates herself on having “moved it shome”. Stories with the family don’t get as far inside her head, instead viewing her from the outside, as when they’re trying to take her picture (but she won’t hold still) or hiding her from the apartment manager. That conflict becomes more of a driver, as the family comes to a decision and carries it through in Book 4, where most of the volume is about Chi’s learning and reactions.
The colors really make this book, with the outside shades being particularly attractive, pure green grass and deep blue skies with puffy clouds. My favorite chapters in Book 3 were the ones where a young cousin came to visit, because seeing an agressive kid chase a kitty is just too cute, especially in a format where I know no one, human or pet, is really getting hurt. Touching in a different way is Chi’s frustration at being locked inside more aggressively, to prevent her from being discovered.
Book 4 takes Chi to a new place, as the family packs and relocates to a pet-friendly housing complex. If you like the parts where she misunderstands human choices best, then this is the volume for you, as the poor thing doesn’t understand boxing up belongings or movers or having a new home. She’s got a lot to adjust to, including exploring a staircase for the first time.
Visually, there are even more adorable animals, as all the neighbors have pets too, including a lovely bouncy beagle. Chi winds up settling in and playing hide-and-seek in a cute chapter sequence near the end, but she’s never too far from the melancholy that pops up throughout the series.
Yotsuba&! Book 9
by Kiyohiko Azuma, Yen Press, $10.99 US
Another take on daily life that serves as a terrific getaway is this series, the continuing adventures of a young green-haired girl who is almost supernaturally innocent.
The first chapter, which took an unexpected twist, worked as a surprise for me because of how well it’s all drawn. Unusual occurrences are somewhat run-of-the-mill for Yotsuba, anyway, so when something odd started happening, I rode with it until the page turn. Later, seeing the poor little girl, with tears in her eyes, demanding her dad say he’s sorry was both touching and hilarious. Her behavior is so realistic that I believe her and her actions, which makes the reading all the more enjoyable.
The big event in this book is Yotsuba gaining a new friend, an old-fashioned jointed teddy bear she names Juralumin. Which pointed out the biggest lack in this series for me. I really wanted some cultural/ translator endnotes for this volume to explain the meaning and origin of this name. Without them, I kept getting distracted wondering where that odd moniker came from. Small mentions, like the name of a famous large supermarket, are footnoted in the page gutters. It’s very nice not to have to flip back and forth in the book, but there’s limited space and no room for longer explanations.
There’s plenty of cuteness to go around this volume, as Yotsuba introduces Juralumin to making coffee and riding in a little red wagon and going to a restaurant for grilled meat. There’s nothing like seeing a girl and her favorite stuffed friend, especially when the games only make sense to her. Yotsuba’s eyes are a key indicator of her moods, flaring when she’s angry or frustrated or amazed or afraid.
The gorgeously detailed drawings are the perfect escape, showing exactly what it’s like to go shopping or wander the neighborhood or bounce on an exercise ball (a high point in the animated action). Late in the book, the gang goes to view hot air balloons, a terrific excuse for scenery and visual display. Reading a volume of Yotsuba&! is always a great reminder to slow down and enjoy the experiences around us.
Aria Book 6
by Kozue Amano, Tokyopop, $10.99 US
Aria has a similar message, made all the more poignant by the slow release schedule of the series (one book a year for the last three years), teaching the reader patience and enjoyment of what you have when you have it.
Aria is beginning her second winter steering boats on Neo-Venezia, the water-covered Martian city that resembles old Earth’s Venice. As she and her friends from different gondola companies are enjoying hot cocoa in front of a fire, the older girls tell them stories of their early days. The relationships among the members of the various generations are very similar. While some might think of this as repetitive plotting on the part of the author, I instead see circles of life, how friendships are more similar than different over the years.
I quite enjoy how often the characters talk over meals or snacks. Eating is such a basic human drive, and sharing food with others cements relationships. Plus, a tasty treat addresses a sense often forgotten in comics: stimulating taste buds as well as vision and imagination. The undines (gondoliers) also sing as part of their jobs; add that to imagining the feel of the boat and the smell of the sea, and everything’s covered.
While the younger girls contemplate growing up and being unable to hang out as often as they do now, one of their mentors provides some classic wisdom to them:
Time changes everything. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
Thinking about the past is nice… but it would be a shame if it caused us to lose sight of the fun we have now.
Those days were fun. But so are these ones. It’s just a different type of fun.
Fun times … really aren’t meant to be compared. Just enjoyed.
What an excellent reminder to myself of how to maximize enjoyment. Especially when I’m feeling old.
Also in this book, Akari gets her first job on her own, carrying hand-blown glass in a story that considers the questions of craft originality. The girls also make snowmen and adopt a stray kitten. Manga fantasy fans will especially appreciate the chapter “A Night on the Galactic Railroad“, a fable about a secret night train. (Others will rue the lack of translation notes to explain the reference.) A bonus story continues the fabulous events by speculating on the alternate worlds the cat President Aria can access. This one is a parallel universe where all the characters are gender-switched (although since the “boys” are drawn in bishonen form, I had a hard time figuring that out until it was explained).
Children of the Sea Book 4
by Daisuke Igarashi, Viz, $14.99 US
This water-based series is more plot-driven than the others I’ve mentioned, which are more episodic, but since I’m not sure what’s going on, I find it just as escapist.
Everyone’s investigating the sea, which just as often, in these drawings, resembles a starscape, populated with bubbles instead of galactic bodies. The girl Ruka has disappeared, a sailboat is found deserted, and fish are dissolving into bits of light. Ruka’s mother, who when younger was a traditional nude skin-diver for shells (as we learn in flashback), is determined to find her child. The older woman used to hear the voice of the ocean herself, until Ruka’s conception.
Much is made of the connection between pregnancy and childbirth and the world of the oceans. This is not a book for someone looking for a strong, practical, realistic story. Instead, it’s an invitation to ponder mystical connections. The more you open yourself to the book, the more you will become part of its story and enjoy the unique transformation. Especially once they start the space education.
There’s something of the “noble savage” idea, the valorization of the primitive and “natural”, to this story, which doesn’t sit entirely well with me (who’s communicating worldwide on a computer, so that disagreement is not surprising). The book aims to evoke nature in all its many varied forms, told through mind-expanding imagery of underwater life and exploration boats.