*Ooku: The Inner Chambers Book 10 — Recommended

Ooku: The Inner Chambers Book 10 feels like a final volume. The cover, a group shot with a white background, differs from the stark single-figure-against-black theme of the previous books in the series, and there’s an incredibly valuable extra included that wraps together many of the previous events. It’s a family tree showing all the shoguns and their key retainers that makes me want to reread the series, now that I better understand the relationships. I wish we’d seen this much earlier, to use as a reference, but I’m sure it was thought to reveal too much about upcoming twists.

I think Ooku: The Inner Chambers is still ongoing in Japan, so maybe I’m jumping to conclusions, but this book catches up with what’s been released there so far. Regardless, it’s wonderful that Viz has been so loyal to this series. It’s always been a difficult sale to English readers, since it’s an alternate-history fantasy steeped in Japanese knowledge. Americans in particular don’t have a good understanding of what it’s like to be part of a country with so many centuries of history behind it. (We only have two, and not even 50 leaders.) I’m sure the series reads differently to those who already had some idea of the various rulers being rewritten as secret women. For me, I know nothing about what will happen, keeping the leadership maneuvers fresh and surprising.

Ooku postulates a terribly vicious Redface Pox that kills only men. The result is a country where women take over, although they take male names, and the men are rare properties to be sheltered and protected. The ruling shogun has her own harem, kept in the Inner Chambers. The book tackles three main types of story: 1) the political machinations determining who will rule and what they will do; 2) the life of the men in the Ooku, with plots among them as they struggle for their own rankings; and 3) later in the series, the struggle to investigate and fight the illness.

That last plotline, which takes center stage in this book with important discoveries (another reason this volume has an air of finality), centers on Gennai, a talented investigator and creative thinker who travels the country disguised as a man so he can better find out more about how to treat this malady. His work contributes to the formation of a vaccination program, leading to the first real hope the country has had in fighting the pox.

I haven’t discussed the art, because anyone who knows the work of Fumi Yoshinaga knows how skilled she is. Her characters are beautifully delineated, with an elegance that comes through regardless of the many and varied emotions they demonstrate. Her storytelling, winding together all these various threads, from large-scale country-wide events to individual passions, is masterful.

Others have complained about the tone used for the translation, with the language given an aura of age with “thou”s and formal phrasing. I like it. It gives the reader a reminder of the historical nature of the events that fits with the formal costumes and imperial nature of the setting. It also suits the Shakespearean feel of some of the plots, as when family members love the same woman, leading to frustration from social rules, lovers kept apart, and eventually suicide.

Jealousy also drives a key event for Gennai, set upon and attacked a way that ruins the rest of his life. No one in these stories is ever truly happy. Restrictions and demands prevent most couples from staying together, and political plots lead to poisonings. Yet the country continues. Ooku: The Inner Chambers is an amazing series like nothing else out there, strongest in its insights into the universality of love and desire. I’m very glad to have read it.


Yukarism Book 1

Chika Shiomi’s previous manga in English, Rasetsu and Yurara, provide a hint of what you’ll get here. They’re both supernaturally tinged romances involving well-meaning young women involved in forces beyond their control.

Yukarism starts with an explanation of Yukari’s unique situation. He “was born without forgetting his previous life”, so he’s become quite popular for writing novels about the Edo Period that feel incredibly realistic. He’s able to do so without research because he previously lived then, in the Pleasure District, and he remembers bits of his life there, including his death.

When he encounters Mahoro, a fan of his writing, he feels as though he instantly knows her. That’s because she’s the reincarnation of his best friend and assistant back then. Her presence leads him to recognize more about his memories, at which point we see incidents from the past (often portrayed humorously, as Yukari doesn’t have all the knowledge he needs to fully become who he was back then). And I liked her statement of why she’s such a huge fan of his work:

His writing style and characters are so elegant! I don’t know why, but they warm me deep inside. He creates this world that feels so nostalgic and irresistible.

That could be seen as a statement about the intent of this shojo manga. The series has lovely-looking people, a languorous pace, and moody hints of revelations to come. They may not be particularly surprising — soon, it seems, everyone Yukari knows will turn out to have been hanging out together back in history — but they’re enjoyable. The pacing, focused on the moment, is a nice change from comic series over-stuffed with revelations. I’m curious to see where Shiomi takes events, since her cast are now living two stories (present-day and past) and her historical images are attractive portraits of a far-away time.

As a side note, Shiomi puts in occasional short strips about creating the series. I thought the one where she reveals she doesn’t know much about history because she “always drew manga in class!” particularly cute. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)


How’s the Digital Manga Tezuka Kickstarter Doing?

I was curious to know how the smaller, more affordable Kickstarter launched by Digital Manga at the end of last month to publish Ludwig B was doing, since they picked a rotten time of year to ask for money (although licensing needs and the desire to stay in people’s minds may have been factors in wanting to get back out there quickly).

Currently, with a little over half way done, they’ve reached a bit over half their goal (55%). But after the first couple of days, Kicktraq shows that pledges have dropped dramatically.

Ludwig B daily Kickstarter pledges

However, that site is also predicting, at the time of this writing. that the goal will be met. Many projects follow a similar U-shaped curve, with the most activity near launch and just before completion, but the problem here is that Digital Manga scheduled their project to end on December 26, so I suspect not a lot of people are going to be online in the last few days.

I suggest Digital Manga do more updating — there’s been only one update, a survey link posted last week — and work harder to get people talking on social media. If more people knew that these books are likely to NOT be easily available once the Kickstarter is done, their rates might go up. I’ll do more reporting as we get closer to the end, in two weeks.


Spell of Desire Book 2

What felt sympathetic and accomplished to me in Spell of Desire Book 1 here reeked too strongly of cliche and stereotype. Perhaps it’s that I wanted the story to move along more quickly, and this felt too much like treading water to pad page count. Perhaps it’s that I recently read a much better done romance. Perhaps it’s just that the supernatural genre isn’t my cup of tea. Regardless, I found my patience strained.

The book is driven by an incredibly thinly disguised metaphor. Kaoruko has unexpected magical power within her that drives men crazy to the point of sexually attacking her. They can’t control themselves because she’s “too appealing”. She is treated as an object, someone for whom decisions are made by others around her. Her mother deserted her for her own good, supposedly; her grandmother lied by omission to her for her entire life; and her legacy means she must do what the witches tell her.

Her “knight” Kaname can control her by kissing her, which subdues her at the same time it awakens her previously unexpected passions. She acts out so he’ll discipline her and restrain her power. She doesn’t ever ask for what she wants, instead manipulating him into fulfilling her needs, while he gets jealous whenever she’s around another man — under the guise of needing to protect her.

The two are clearly made for each other at the same time we see them — by every typical fictional sign — falling in love. Yet they won’t say or do anything about it because they think the other is there only because they have to be. This is a dumb convention that leads to me mentally yelling at them to just talk to each other. Also annoying is how he is overprotective of her — but leaves her alone for the sole purpose of twisting the plot. That gives her plenty of space to engage in increasingly tiresome monologues while staring meaningfully at nothing.

I also had little patience for the increasing space dedicated to the witches’ coven and the various political maneuverings among them. I’m not sure it’s fair for me to be so hard on this book for being formulaic, though. For those who enjoy teeth-gnashingly tortured romance with an air of the supernatural, this might be immensely satisfying.


*My Love Story!! Book 2 — Recommended

Now that the massively masculine Takeo and the delightfully delicate Yamato have realized they like each other, as we saw in Book 1, we settle down to the confusion of dating.

The writer, Kazune Kawahara, has good ideas for short moments that convey how the characters are perceived by others. For instance, when they come across a woman struggling with a baby stroller on a flight of steps, Takeo immediately grabs the stroller and easily heads to the other end of the stairs. From the woman’s perspective, though, an overly large guy has loomed over her (and Aruko does a great job with the looming from a worm’s eye perspective and shading to increase Takeo’s monster look) and seized her child. Thankfully, the attractive Sunakawa is there to put her at ease and explain Takeo’s intentions.

It’s this conflict between appearance — Takeo looks like a gangster tough guy from an old movie in his suit — and intention that make up the light-hearted comedy that is so appealing in this series. After one of his (frequent) good deeds, sometimes people end up thanking Sunakawa, confusing beauty for good action. People can be shallow, in other words, and it’s that reminder that keeps the series from being sticky-sweet.

Takeo also tends to act without explanation or delay. Thankfully, he’s always doing the right thing, even if he does get misunderstood. That’s seen in one of the chapters here, as Yamato’s friends and Takeo’s friends have a social mixer. Yamato has been talking about how great her boyfriend is, but the other girls are shocked that Takeo is so much outside the norm. Sunakawa, jaded by how superficially others treat him, tells the truth: “Just because she’s nice doesn’t mean her friends are too. They might be friends because she’s so nice.” When a disaster threatens, though (with some dynamic action cartooning), Takeo saves the day, showing Yamato’s friends just how cool he can be. It’s an exaggerated series of events, but with emotional authenticity behind them.

In other chapters, Takeo and Yamato have to deal with temporary separation as Takeo helps out the judo team for a tournament and Takeo struggles to give Yamato a perfect birthday. That’s complicated by his desire to be there for his friend Sunakawa during a difficult time. Sunakawa has a valuable role in the couple’s relationship — he states explicitly what each is thinking to the other, nicely shortcutting the stereotypical kinds of misunderstandings that fuel a lot of other shojo manga.

Takeo and Yamato’s relationship can be laughable in its good-hearted simplicity, but the authors bring through an honesty of feeling that makes me want to cherish their naiveté instead of snarking or snickering at it. Everything is new to them because they’re in love. This kind of pure emotion is why I read romance comics, because in the real world, it would quickly be shot down and trampled. Here, though, I can enjoy how it felt to be that young. They’re adorable!

I don’t recall if these were a feature of the first volume, but between story chapters are recipes for the treats Yamato makes. They seem delicious, even if they’d need some tweaking to be workable for US ingredients.


Second Round of Shonen Jump Start Stories

Earlier this year, I wrote about Jump Start, Viz’s program of debuting new series in Weekly Shonen Jump the same day they launch in Japan. Beyond the first three titles, which I wrote about at that link, the following series have appeared in English:

The September 29 issue had the first (extended-length, it felt like) chapter of elDLIVE by Akira Amano, a space exploration story starring an oddball. He hears a voice in his head that always says negative things, but it turns out to be an artificial alien lifeform, as he finds out after being kidnapped by a cute imp to join the space police. The story, appearing in color, has a neat watercolor look to it, although I thought there were a few too many things going on.

Weekly Shonen Jump December 1

The next issue issue, October 6, introduced “Jump Back!”, rerunning the first chapter of the famous Death Note. October 27 added Hi-Fi Cluster (from the first round of Jump Start launches) to the regular lineup. The November 3 issue switched to the first chapter of Naruto as the Jump Back! feature.

Jump Starts began again on November 17 with Takujo no Ageha, a table tennis competition manga by Itsuki Furuya. In keeping with the dreams of the male audience, the series also features a gorgeous, popular girl named Ririka who’s determined to make the hero fall for her because she can’t believe he likes the sport more than her. (She lives at a table tennis center with her pervy grandfather.)

Ryohei Yamamoto’s E-Robot started November 24, featuring an erotic robot who uses her “boob barricade” to save the hero. She was created to bring about world peace and break the cycle of killing by “providing proof of the power of the erotic!” (I was oddly reminded of Wonder Woman here.)

December 1 brought Gakkyu Hotei: School Judgment, which is exciting because it has art by Takeshi Obata (Bakuman, Death Note, Hikaru no Go). The story is by Nobuaki Enoki and is about a grade school court, where 12-year-old students judge each other. There’s a surprising amount of legal information in this first chapter, about a classroom pet fish that’s been killed, while the case concludes in the December 8 issue.

It’s awfully neat seeing such new series, although it’s tricky. You can’t get too attached to them because you’ll likely only see three chapters. I hope to see more of Gakkyu Hotei: School Judgment, though.