by Io Sakisaka; adapted by Ysabet MacFarlane
published by Viz; $9.99 US
Strobe Edge is a great shojo manga. It doesn’t have a fantasy overlay or a cross-dressing premise or any kind of weird hook to grab attention. It simply tells the story of Ninako, average schoolgirl, and her crush on Ren, the cool, handsome guy in her class.
Since Ren’s got a girlfriend — a teen model, just to reinforce how great his life is — Ninako’s been struggling with big questions: Can she handle being his friend, knowing she wants more but can’t have it, and can she cope with all the feelings this puts her through? This isn’t the kind of series that treads water, though, revisiting the same situations just to fill pages.
In Book 6, the relationships have changed. Ren and his girlfriend Mayuka have broken up, at her instigation, since they were growing in different directions. (The characters in Strobe Edge sometimes demonstrate surprising levels of maturity. Which is refreshing, not to have to yell at a manga character, “Don’t be so stupid!”) Since Ren’s friend Daiki is Mayuka’s brother, this requires some readjustment and checking to see if friendships still hold.
As a true friend, Ninako is the only girl in her class wondering if Ren’s ok about all this instead of positioning herself to fill the gap in Ren’s affections. But it leads her to another big question: Should she risk telling him how she feels, or can she settle for friendship? (A decision that, since I am of a certain generation, will always have the soundtrack of “What Can You Lose” from Dick Tracy to me.)
This volume covers Valentine’s Day and White Day, making the giving of chocolates highly symbolic. Plus, Ando’s still interested in Ninako, creating a rivalry with Ren that here plays out on the basketball court, making for some active art that’s a nice change of pace from the usual conversations. Don’t get me wrong, Io Sakisaka does a wonderful job with expressions as well, particularly in the small moments that are so meaningful. There are some panels of Ninako’s face that I can spend a while with, marveling over how revealing the simple look is. The sport competition leads to another way of working out a friendship when love, and its companion jealousy, has come into the picture.
Book 6 has a backup story, “Colorless Dreamer”, a one-shot about a young couple living on their own. Rena works hard but keeps losing jobs due to her clumsiness. She’s trying to help fund her boyfriend Haruka’s dreams of playing in a band. Strangely, the story’s about how she fears she’s a burden on him. She doesn’t have “any special talents or qualifications… any dreams of [her] own” so she’s worried he’ll dump her because she can’t take care of him properly. I had some problems with the politics of this story, needless to say, although the couple is cute together.
I did like the author’s afterword, in which she says “the true joy of shojo manga” is “the meaning behind an action, the truth behind a spoken line, or the hidden feelings behind a moment of silence. Fantasizing about this or that, reading between the lines.” That gave me a new way to appreciate the genre.
Strobe Edge Book 7 takes the class on a field trip, where they divide into small groups. Ninako’s has Ren; Sayuri, Daiki’s girlfriend; and Yu. To explore different kinds of interactions, this volume branches out into events with more of the supporting cast. Daiki, for instance, is the only one of the friends in a different class, where a new girl has become friendly with him. That makes Sayuri jealous and unsure of how and when to talk to him about her feelings. Her relationship with her previous boyfriend has made her fearful of such things.
Yu, meanwhile, has a more complicated backstory, with overtones for Ren and Ninako. He broke up with a girlfriend for another girl, and he now regrets doing so. Not all decisions can be reversed, since his ex is in his class but has moved on to being with someone else.
All this isn’t too angsty, though. There’s plenty of humor, as when Ren and Ninako embarrass themselves over him lending her his hoodie, after she falls in a puddle chasing a most adorable dog.
It’s the decisions and feelings that are most important, though, as characters work through what they should do and what they choose to do (not always the same thing). Your past (and those of others) affects what you think about the present. Particularly when only later do you realize that what you thought happened wasn’t true. Yu and his ex have a poignant conversation on this topic, with the fraught and unanswered question, “Do you think maybe, if we’d been honest about our feelings, we’d still be together?”
The bonus story in this book is a flashback to Yu’s previous relationship, showing how they came together and what drove them apart, which provides great context for the earlier discussion (later in their lives) about their views on what happened.
You can read my reviews of previous volumes in the series. Strobe Edge has developed into an outstanding shojo manga where I eagerly look forward to new volumes. (The publisher provided review copies.)