Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma Book 1

Food Wars! is due out in print at the beginning of next month, but it’s been available digitally (along with book 2) for months now. If you enjoy cooking competition manga like Iron Wok Jan or Yakitate!! Japan, this is another strong entry in that category.

Soma Yukihira is a scrappy teen cook. He’s been raised in the family restaurant, and he’s quite talented, but unpolished. He winds up attending a prominent culinary high school for the best of the best. There he meets Erina, a high achiever with a “divine tongue… the most refined palate known to man.” Of course she also has a large chest.

The flavors of the food are evoked through exaggerated images. The first has made this series somewhat infamous, as Soma’s attempt at a squid dish tastes so wrong that the girl trying it feels as though she’s being molested by tentacles, a spectacle given a two-page fan-service spread of her flashing underwear. As seen here, like those other books I mentioned, this series is written for guys.

The dish shown on the cover is a fake pork roast, constructed out of potatoes and bacon to defeat an unscrupulous land developer who’s trying to destroy the family restaurant. The sequence where he describes its construction is impressive, followed by several images of the female executive experiencing “the rich juices… explod[ing] inside [her] mouth” and begging to be allowed to eat more. Thankfully, that sort of thing calms down once Soma goes to school, although we do see Erina almost topless, surrounded by angels, when she finally agrees to taste his food.

Once we get past those images, the love of food does shine through in the series. Erina represents fancy gourmet cooking and all the snooty elites that participate in that world. Soma is the champion of “common, dirt-cheap dishes” that when done well are filled with flavor and possibly even more satisfying. He’s labeled a “common plebeian” (redundancy!) by the book itself, and his skills will require the stuck-up high-class chefs to acknowledge his value.

His challenge is to make Erina acknowledge how good regular cooking can be. His lifetime of practical experience working in a restaurant, where the food has to get done and it has to please the customer, is his major asset, although his “screw everyone but me” attitude will needs its rough edges smoothed out.

The recipe for Soma’s rice dish is also included in the volume, as is the one-chapter stand-alone “pilot” story for this series. There’s also a short bonus about Soma’s girl neighbor (the tentacle victim).

Although the art is aimed firmly at the young male, if you can overlook the fan service, Food Wars! does a great job of capturing the emotion of competition and the struggle to improve and win. (And even the images can be laughably enjoyable in a “really? they went there?” kind of way.) There’s a strong respect for food and flavor that comes through the pages, and that’s the part of the series I enjoy.

Future volumes are planned to come out in print on an every-other-month release schedule. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


All You Need Is Kill (Digital Manga Review)

Publishing decisions don’t always make sense to me. To tie into this summer’s release of Edge of Tomorrow, Viz put out an abbreviated comic version of the original story titled All You Need Is Kill. It wasn’t very good, and its short length made it a very choppy read.

All You Need Is Kill cover

Now I’ve had the chance to try the All You Need Is Kill manga, which is available digitally only in two volumes. (A print omnibus edition is due in November.) It’s a much better read and a more enjoyable experience. This should have been the lead tie-in, although perhaps comics are considered more mainstream than manga to promote.

Much of its appeal comes from the skilled, attractive artwork. Takeshi Obata has illustrated several manga titles well-known in the US, including Death Note, Hikaru no Go, and Bakuman. His detailed art is a pleasure to read.

Of course, the increased page count (in comparison to the comic) means scenes have room to breathe. Incidents that seemed to randomly appear in the graphic novel here have purpose and explanation. Characters seem more realistic, with actual human reactions. Since this is a manga, with certain expectations, the battle jacket armor fits right in. The soldiers are beautifully drawn in imposing yet tragically futile battle scenes.

The comic seemed to me like a glorified ad for the movie. This book seems like a story in itself. Keiji takes some time, understandably, to realize what’s happening to him, that he’s reliving one day over and over. That gives us some time to get to know and sympathize with him, his uncertainty and looming terror, as his experience hardens him. Plus, fellow soldiers have personalities. There’s a lot more content, many more moments to get to know Keiji as a person, as well as those around him. The space also allows for more repetitions of his death, with variations that teach him and us more about the situation and strategies. The long-standing war against the monster Mimics hangs over it all.

All You Need Is Kill is a good read for those who like battle / mecha / science fiction manga regardless of whether you not you’re interested in seeing the Tom Cruise movie. I warn you, Volume 1 ends on a stunning cliffhanger, so you’ll want to be ready to buy both books at once. The publisher has made the first chapter available as a free preview. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)


*Ooku: The Inner Chambers Books 8-9 — Recommended

I admit, it can be difficult keeping up with Ooku: The Inner Chambers. One volume comes out every year or so, and the premise — an alternate history of Japan in which most of the men have died, causing the women to take over leading the country — can be complicated for most readers, who don’t have any knowledge of Japanese history.

Yet it’s so well done! I adore Fumi Yoshinaga’s art, with its thin-line detail and expressive characters. She builds a rich, full world, transporting us to another place and time where courtesy could be life-threatening (if the wrong person is accidentally insulted). And of course, she illustrates the gorgeous kimono fashion that was such an important marker of one’s place in the hierarchy.

It has been a while since I read the series, but Book 8 was a great refresher, since it contains shorter stories focusing on specific individuals trying to navigate this changed world. First, there’s the problem of succession to the shogun, as her oldest daughter is disabled. She can’t speak or move properly, although later events reveal that she’s not stupid, just handicapped by a body that won’t obey her. The challenge of such a condition in a world without modern medical care or understanding isn’t one that had previously occurred to me, and Yoshinaga makes her story quite affecting.

Next comes a question of discrimination. Zenjiro is an accomplished chef, but many guests at the inn where he cooks don’t want a man in the kitchen. Some of his coworkers similarly find his presence an annoyance. So he enters the inner chambers, where he finds that he’s at the bottom of the hierarchy, there for the other men to play tricks on and haze until he demonstrates his skill. Given Yoshinaga’s love of food, I wasn’t surprised to see discussion of a recipe in this section.

Zenjiro has a more important role to play, though. One of the shogun’s concubines has been put under house arrest, and he refuses to eat. Zenjiro is tasked with creating dishes that will prevent him from starving himself. The resulting story is one of deep feelings, exploring the nature of jealousy over the men’s meals. As a result, it’s almost the quintessential Yoshinaga story, combining food, male relationships, and emotional exploration.

The following section picks up the political threads, as the kingdom is threatened by peasant revolts, seeking the rice that is used as capital to eat. The matter-of-fact mentions of assassinations for positioning of favored candidates to ascend to power reinforces the historical nature of the story.

The last chapter introduces two new, fascinating characters. Gennai is a motormouth, sent to find an interpreter and scholar for the chambers. He returns with Gosaku, a half-Japanese young man who can speak Dutch — the only connection Japan has with the outside world is through traders of that nationality — and has been studying medicine. The redface pox, the disease that has taken so many of the Japanese men, is unknown outside the country, and Japan has tightened its borders so that other nations won’t learn its secret. However, the shogun wants more study of the plague in order to eventually counter it and raise the male population.

The drive to study “Western sciences” continues in Book 9 as the shogun changes. Gosaku, renamed Aonuma for his blue eyes, hopes to share his knowledge of medicine, but he encounters great passive resistance from those uninterested in the outside world, particularly knowledge gained from foreigners. A particularly amusing note is how Aonuma brings soap (“sabon”) as a gift, but it is thrown away. One of the major advancements of medicine was the discovery of the importance of hygiene, represented here as a kind of hostess gift.

Aonuma’s work is proven when the flu goes around the chambers, with many fallen ill. Meanwhile, the plain-spoken Gennai is investigating the potential cause of the pox. I found the studies and spatting of these two, particularly as they seek to educate those who don’t care, entertaining and refreshing, another hook into this historical series. Gennai is a very modern character, although that may be his downfall, as his inability not to say what he’s thinking makes him some powerful enemies. However, he also comes up with an astounding idea to fight the pox, using bears. And his good humor, optimism, and enthusiasm is always welcome. (That’s him on the cover of Book 9, while Aonuma features on Book 8.)

Although long into the series, with its medical investigations and distinctive characters, Book 9 would be a fine place to start reading. According to Amazon, the next volume, Book 10, is due in November. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


Viz Chibis: Happy Marriage?! 6, Midnight Secretary 6, Sweet Rein 3

Midnight Secretary Book 6

by Tomu Ohmi
Previous volume

The two have finally admitted their love for each other, a particularly difficult revelation for the vampire Kyohei, who sees humans as inferior. However, that in some ways makes their boss/secretary relationship more difficult, particularly when attending social events. He’s willing to go public with their relationship, although when Kaya dresses up, she looks remarkably young, a callback to her struggle with her “baby face”.

Also complicating is the presence of Kyohei’s parents, a human father and vampire mother. They love each other, but their mixed marriage has been a struggle to manage in the larger culture, so they fear for the younger couple’s coming problems. As the mother says, “Love alone isn’t enough” … but I don’t believe that will be the lasting message, since Midnight Secretary is a rather traditional romance, underneath the sex scenes and the vampire’s blood needs.

Now that they’re a couple, they’re facing more typical struggles for established pairings, such as a pregnancy scare. That leads to more conflict with the vampire clan, who are suddenly very interested in the possibility of a child. In this mythos, vampires don’t turn those they feed from; instead, if a vampire/human pair results in a child, it’s a 50-50 chance it would be another vampire (which is how Kyohei has a human father and brother).

Personally, I don’t care much for couples that suddenly go from love to wanting to spawn, so I found this abrupt focus on having a kid somewhat disconcerting. It does allow for more drama, though, with Kaya risking kidnapping and having a new subject to obsess over privately. We go from “does he see me as more than a meal?” to “he says he won’t have a child with me, does he mean it?” as the latest “why don’t the characters just talk to each other?” hidden subject. Even as I know this is cheesy and artificial in extending the story, though, I do like the characters and hope the best for them.

Happy Marriage?! Book 6

by Maki Enjoji
Previous volume

I keep hoping for deeper themes in this book, which is a mismatch, since by this point, I should realize that Happy Marriage?! will always go for the misunderstanding and refusal of the characters to talk to each other as symbolism for troubled relationships that still hold together. I suspect a certain type of reader likes that certainty, the reinforcement that problems can be overcome (and probably the reassurance that “at least my marriage isn’t that bad!”).

Chiwa has previously gone to the hospital to visit Hokuto’s estranged father. Her husband blames that parent for his mother’s death, and his dogged pursuit of company power is all driven by a desire to find out why. Chiwa continues to investigate on her own, which sets him off. She won’t listen to him, because she wants to help him, and he won’t trust her. (Sometimes, this is less a romance than a dark comedy about how wrong marriage can go.) After a couple of days, Chiwa discovers something new about a matter that’s obsessed Hokuto for 20 years, but I found that a bit unlikely.

The two are ridiculous in their treatment of each other. He’s working late, so she sends him to bed when he gets home, which makes him think she doesn’t want to have sex with him, while she’s trying to be considerate. He doesn’t communicate when he goes on a business trip, so she feels ignored, so she implies she’s having an affair, which sets him off, all because he wouldn’t text her back. They have to scream at each other before they bother to say what they really want and what they’re feeling.

I suppose a number of readers need to see the miscommunication in order to learn what not to do, but it just makes me want to slap some sense into them. Then comes a story where she naturally helps him in his business by being charmingly naive to powerful businessmen. Or he worries about her overworking herself, and there’s a hint of true feeling between the two. The balance isn’t what I’d choose it to be, but I can see why others would find it encouraging to see a romance that isn’t picture perfect.

Sweet Rein Book 3

by Sakura Tsukuba
Previous volume

The final volume of the short Sweet Rein series is also a kind of romance, as Santa Kurumi finds out that spring is mating season for the human Reindeer. As a result, Kaito, already handsome, is nearly irresistible to girls, making Kurumi jealous. The story that results has potential, but compared to the two books above, the relationship aspect falls strangely flat, with most of the chapter devoted to Kurumi’s waffling about what she wants to do. It’s a younger-aimed series, so that’s probably more age-appropriate.

Other stories in this volume feature a summer vacation where they discover a sick child who wants to make up with a playmate he treated badly; a Halloween-timed tale with a lone reindeer who makes Kaito jealous; and a final Christmas story in which a black reindeer (one separated from his Santa) finds redemption and final happiness. They’re well-intentioned, if slight, and this series length seems about right. This volume seems to be aiming at expanding the mythology and characters, but I think the potential of the concept has been about played out. Any of the books in the series would make for good light reading during the holiday season, with none of the stories strongly serialized.

(The publisher provided review copies.)


My Little Monster Books 1-2

I’ve seen this premise before, in such titles as Beast Master. There’s an unsocialized boy, Haru, feared by other students. He meets and befriends the solo Shizuku, who only wants good grades so she can get a high-paying job and has “no time to worry about other people”. Together, the two learn more about caring for others in My Little Monster.

Haru was suspended on the first day of school for fighting, resulting in increasingly exaggerated rumors about his dangerous nature. Due to their desk placement, Shizuku would be sitting next to him, so she’s sent to take him his assignments. They actually meet when he tackles her, accusing her of being a spy for the school. His views of socializing are rather basic, and he doesn’t understand what friendship means. By simply paying attention to him, she’s treated him better than anyone else, so he becomes attached to her. For her, his pure emotions spark a part of her heart she didn’t realize she had, one that would otherwise care about a pet.

He soon declares his affection for her, that he likes her because around her, his heart beats fast. She struggles with the intensity of his attention, as well as the inconveniences he brings, like getting her involved with a small gang of bad kids who temporarily kidnap her. The two try to figure out, in their own ways, how best to make the person you care about happy while reinforcing the idea that everyone needs someone.

Halfway through the first book, two new characters come to hang out with the core couple. The first is Asako, a girl whose good looks mean that she has plenty of boys chasing her but no female friends. She’s found some in an online community, but unless she gets tutoring to pass a test, she’ll be kept from meeting them in person. Shizuku refuses, but Haru agrees to help … which doesn’t, but it allows for some more meditations on what it means to be lonely and why people need friends.

The other, more amusing new friend is a chicken. Haru winds up adopting one as a pet. That brings the young gang together to build it a henhouse. As seen by this, the events are sometimes silly in this series, but the feelings can be quite substantial. I didn’t expect to like My Little Monster as much as I did, but it’s a good blend of (often dry) comedy and more substantial emotional beats, all with art that’s more fully realized than in other manga of this genre.

My Little Monster Book 2, now that the premise has been established, puts the two and their friends into more situations. First, there’s a school sports day, where Haru has become more popular with the girls now that he’s not quite so scary. There’s the summer fun of a day at the beach, which is very typical for manga, and a river fishing trip, not so usual and as a result more fun.

We learn more about Haru’s background and get an explanation for why, given his temperament and history, he’s still so good at school. There’s also another new friend, a lonely class rep developing a crush on Haru.

I like the pacing of this series, which moves along in snappy fashion, with plenty happening. Too often, I feel as though some manga are dragging things out in order to continue the series, and it becomes frustrating to watch characters spinning their wheels. Here, in contrast, even when the cast are going over some of the same ground, enough else is happening that there’s always a sense of forward progress.

I also appreciate the way that, although this is a teen love story, romance isn’t considered the be-all and end-all of motivations. Shizuku has reasons for finding her self-validation in schoolwork, solving problems that have specific answers, and she’s not love-crazy, instead weighing her feelings against other factors that will contribute to her future.

The publisher has posted a preview at their Tumblr. (The publisher provided review copies.)


Say I Love You Book 2

As Say I Love You Book 2 opens, we’re at the beach. (If you want seasonal summer reading, manga’s the way to go.) More significant than seeing the very busty Asami in a bikini, though, are the flashbacks the loner Mei has. We learn why she wound up with no friends and no memories — an over-protective father went too far in trying to keep her safe.

Say I Love You is different from a lot of other shojo manga in being so forward about how teens want to have sex. Mei and Yamato and Asami and her boyfriend are staying over at the beach, which leads to rather frank conversation between Mei and Yamato about how he wants her and the time he had sex with a classmate of theirs, a girl who still wants to get back with him (and so makes Mei nervous).

This is still idealized romance, in that Yamato usually knows the perfect thing to say to make Mei feel better, but it’s refreshing to see a more realistic struggle in manga than, say, whether the girl will get caught cross-dressing. Mei’s new friendship with him makes her more noticeable to others, including the slutty Hayakawa. He’s used to getting any girl he wants, and his portrayal is that of a sexaholic, since he needs to get laid to keep himself together during the day.

We almost immediately find out that his life isn’t as simple as he makes it out to be, with a story about a neighbor girl, Chirharu, who’s the only one who cares for him as a person instead of an organ. His story is a bit demented, but with a core of sweetness and yearning underneath. Everyone in this series has more depth than the usual role; even the pretty, popular girl who wants Yamato for herself has a tragic backstory about being obsessed with her appearance. (The publisher provided a review copy.)