SorakoTen quiet slice-of-life vignettes comprise Sorako, a thin yet evocative volume published by GEN Manga. Each story features a young woman struggling through the ennui typical of the transition between teenage life and adulthood. While each story is independent of the others, the titular character Sorako is the only one who receives a follow-up chapter.

In Sorako’s story, we learn that her beloved dog Toma has run away. Other than Toma, Sorako doesn’t seem to find anything enjoyable about life as she half-heartedly searches for a job and blames her lack of motivation on her mundane hometown. In a later chapter, a girl named Hatoko seems content to sleepwalk through life without experiencing the emotions on which her peers thrive. At one point, Hatoko’s best friend teases her for her typical response to things that others find thrilling: “Pretty okay, I guess.” Both stories feature girls who find themselves most comfortable on the sidelines as life moves rapidly past, and it is only when these characters step outside their comfort zones that they finally begin to move past their boredom.

Sorako is a great manga to recommend to those who usually avoid the format. The characters are relatable and the plots are uncomplicated. There is nary a giant robot, magical girl, or fuku school uniform in sight, nor are there any giant eyes or outrageous hairstyles typically associated with the manga style. Most of the artwork is lovely and uncluttered, depicting each girl and her surroundings in a simple manner which borders on realistic and cartoonish. However, the artwork becomes rough and sketchy in one or two of the stories, as if the artist was rushed to finish the draft.

Sorako is unlikely to attract manga fans who want volumes chock full of mayhem and adventure, but it will be enjoyed by those who prefer something less flashy. Sorako might even find appreciation with readers who would never think to touch manga—try this one with fans of Ghost World and other understated indie titles.

by Fujimura Takayuki
ISBN: 9781939012067
GEN, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 15+

The Sacred Blacksmith, vols. 1-3

sacred blacksmithWhen the Valbanill War ravaged the land, humans discovered that they could harness a terrible power, sacrificing parts of their bodies in order to create demons to fight for them—a ritual that became known as a Demon Pact. But that was 40 years ago, and since the end of the war, the people have begun to rebuild and Demon Pacts have become taboo.

This is the world of The Sacred Blacksmith, a manga series that is based on a string of Japanese light novels. The storyline is simple: like her father and grandfather before her, protagonist Cecily Campbell is a knight. She wishes to carry on the name of the aristocratic Campbell family and defend Housman, the Independent Trade City founded by her grandfather. When her ancestral blade is broken in a fight with a vagabond who has made a Demon Pact, she is rescued by a young man named Luke Ainsworth who wields a curved blade called a katana.

If none of this sounds original, it’s because The Sacred Blacksmith is a clichéd sword-and-sorcery story, complete with stock characters and a bland plot. Cecily is the spunky female fighter who constantly monologues about proving herself, only to be defeated by every opponent and then rescued by Luke. Luke himself is void of personality and emotionally withdrawn, likely due to past betrayal. It is clear from the dialogue that the writer wishes to set these two up as romantic interests, but their lack of chemistry is laughable. Finally, there’s Lisa, an adorable, nymph-like ethereal being who serves as Luke’s assistant. She helps Luke to forge his katana weapons, and naturally, she has an unrequited crush on him.

Speaking of Luke’s katana, Cecily really wants one—no matter that the book opens with Cecily’s refusal to use any steel other than the blade passed down through her family. As soon as she sees Luke’s katana in action, she seems to abandon her blood loyalty, begging him to forge a katana of her own. Later, she forsakes this desire in order to wield a demon blade, a living weapon created by a Demon Pact. Unfortunately, the anthropomorphic weapon trope has been used more effectively in dozens of other series.

Although the artwork isn’t bad, the character designs don’t stand out in any way. Cecily has large breasts, short hair, a tiara on her head, and her armor consists of a breastplate with one left shoulder piece; at one point she appears in a maid’s outfit. Dark-haired Luke sports a permanent gaze of indifference, while tiny Lisa has pointy elf ears and a childlike expression. If one were to place them in a lineup with other anime and game characters, they would easily be lost.

The creators’ overreliance on common tropes continues as they often resort to cheap fan service for comedic relief. Several characters fall into Cecily’s breasts, which become exposed in battle after her clothing is shredded; and of course, there are panty shots and an obligatory bath house scene in which the female characters grab each other’s breasts.

The books include some extras, including fan art and creator commentary. The most notable add-on consists of Lisa explaining the ancient Japanese art of katana forging, which lends some historical value to the series. Lisa and Luke use magical means to create their weapons, but Lisa’s lesson provides a thorough historic and scientific explanation of the real katana and the use of folded steel. Though this is a nice supplement, it does little to make this a shelf-worthy series.

The Sacred Blacksmith, vols. 1-3
by Isao Miura
Art by Kotaro Yamada
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781937867324
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781937867652
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781937867836
Seven Seas Entertainment, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen

Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Different Story, vols. 1-2

Magica_DifferentAlternate tellings are common in anime and manga, but fans of Puella Magi Madoka Magica know that each and every timeline should be accepted as canon. The original anime series and its subsequent manga adaptation shattered the romantic illusion of the Magical Girl archetype with the gruesome death of Mami Tomoe. However, The Different Story considers what might have happened if Mami had survived.

The Different Story begins as a prequel, exploring the friendship between Mami and fellow Puella Magi, Kyouko Sakura. Newly minted with power, Kyouko has made a contract with magical being Kyubey to fight witches as a Magical Girl; in exchange, Kyubey has granted Kyouko’s wish that her preacher father attract more followers. Already a veteran, lonely Mami takes Kyouko under her wing and the two team up to hunt witches together.

Though the artist accurately depicts the characters that fans have learned to love and loathe, the artwork in this series adds nothing new. The biggest weakness is that these volumes are positively inaccessible to anyone who is unfamiliar with the source material. For fans of the franchise, however, there is much to enjoy: a softer, naive version of Kyouko will delight those who know her as a rougher soul, while short-lived favorite Mami gets her due with some healthy character development—and then there’s Madoka’s story arc, which begins in volume two. Scenes from the original series play out in a slightly different manner that echoes what has come before: Mami’s new apprentice Sayaka falls into despair at her shortcomings, while Kyubey relentlessly pursues Madoka to contract with him. While some things have changed with Mami intact, it remains a story with no happy endings.

Much like an episode of The Twilight Zone in which the protagonists find themselves in a world that is similar to their own, yet slightly askew, The Different Story is, in many ways, the same story. Still, it diverges enough to deliver some fresh heartbreak that fans of the franchise won’t anticipate. However, if the Puella Magi series are not already popular on your shelves, give this one a pass. Without the original as a companion, its significance will be lost on newcomers.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Different Story, vols. 1-2
by Magica Quartet
Art by Hanokage
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9780316370516
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9780316370523
Yen Press, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: Teen (13+)

Puella Magi Kazumi Magica: The Innocent Malice, vols. 1-5

MagicaQuartet_KazumiMagica_FINALMagical Girls (Majou Shoujo) have been a beloved trope in the world of anime and manga for decades. The story typically begins when a young girl, who appears to be an ordinary middle school student, is informed by an adorable animal that she possesses an amazing power. What follows is essentially a female-centered superhero story, wherein the girl transforms into wearing a cute outfit and fights against the forces of evil. Sometimes the girl is a solitary fighter, but often she is joined by a team of others who have similar abilities. In 2011, Puella Magi Madoka Magica deconstructed this genre with a dark interpretation of the consequences that might accompany the role of Magical Girl. Puella Magi Kazumi Magica is the latest spin-off in this franchise and, even by the standards of its predecessor, Kazumi delivers a storyline that is intense and shocking.

A companion to Madoka’s story, Kazumi begins as the titular character wakes up naked in a suitcase with no memory of her identity or circumstances. After a confusing side story involving an attempted bombing and a disgruntled restaurant chef, Kazumi is claimed by two girls who say she is their roommate. Eventually it is revealed that these young women are part of a team of Magical Girls who call themselves the Pleiades Saints, and Kazumi is one of them. From here, the reader travels down a strange rabbit hole that will ultimately break some hearts. I am convinced this heartache is what made Madoka so beloved, and it is also likely to entice readers to Kazumi.

Like Madoka and her friends, the Pleiades Saints have made a contract with an incubator. Incubators appear as adorable catlike creatures who approach young girls, offering to make them Magical Girls in exchange for granting one wish. As Magical Girls, they must fight evil witches who throw the world into despair. Fans of the series will know there is much more to this premise, as the incubators have their own dark agenda. While Madoka made a contract with the loathsome Kyubei, the Pleiades are contracted to Jubei. Through Kazumi’s eyes, the reader is dropped into the middle of the Pleiades’ story. With her, we experience the horrors that bound other girls together—and it is Kazumi’s very existence that will challenge everything that fans of the Madoka series already know about the world of Magical Girls.

The artwork is lovely. Using intricate imagery, the bizarre labyrinths that foretell the appearance of a witch are rendered as beautiful as they are horrifying. With checkered flooring as a running theme, each calls to mind a nightmare world with a landscape designed as a collaborative project between artists M.C. Escher and Gustav Klimt. However, the space is inhabited by menacing-yet-cutesy creatures that could easily have been rejected by Sanrio Studios.

Each of the Pleiades have a very distinct look, both in their everyday clothes and their Magical Girl costumes. For instance, thick-browed Kaoru has bangs which frame her face like a helmet. She is the athlete of the group whose costume resembles a short sports jersey. Doe-eyed Saotomi became a Magical Girl after wishing she could talk to animals. Her costume includes a cat motif, but her general appearance almost resembles Disney’s Snow White. Childlike Mirai’s cloud of hair is as plush as the stuffed animals she carries at all times, which are also incorporated into her fighting costume. Kazumi herself might have the most generic appearance.  Though she is cute with short, wispy hair, she fails to stand out among her sisters. While the other girls wear their personality quite literally on their sleeves, Kazumi is likely designed to be the “everyman.” The viewer does not know the nature of the wish that brought Kazumi to contract as a Magical Girl, and as we discover the secrets of her past along with her, perhaps this is why she is not meant to shine.

The first two issues start off a bit slowly. The amnesiac theme, which is popular in anime, can feel like a major eye roller—but once the truth is revealed, this plot device will be forgiven. Another quibble I have is the use of fanservice; panty shots and skimpy costumes are unnecessary in this type of story. One of the things that made Madoka so wonderful was that it didn’t need to sexualize its characters in order to seem edgy, so I was disappointed to see Kazumi use this tactic. Like its predecessor, Kazumi’s target audience is more mature, but this has less to do with the amount of skin shown and more to do with violence and the psychological darkness of the story.

As Kazumi eventually ties into Madoka’s story, I would recommend that any library considering this title should have the first Madoka manga on hand. Kazumi is a fantastic supplement to the foundation laid by Madoka, but without the original story to keep readers abreast of things to come, it will likely be confusing.

Puella Magi Kazumi Magica: The Innocent Malice, vols. 1-5
by Masaki Hiramatsu
Art by Takashi Tensugi
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9780316250962
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9780316254250
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9780316254267
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9780316254274
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9780316286770
Yen Press, 2013-2014
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16 +)

Phantom Thief Jeanne, vol. 1

phantomthiefjeanneMaron Kusakabe is an average Japanese teenager who just happens to live a double life as a Magical Girl. Approached by a minor angel named Finn Fish, Maron discovers that she is the reincarnation of Jeanne D’Arc (a.k.a. Joan of Arc), and therefore she must moonlight as a Magical Girl known as Phantom Thief Jeanne. Jeanne’s purpose is to steal paintings that are possessed by demons—paintings that subsequently possess their owners’ hearts with darkness. When another Phantom Thief makes an appearance on Maron’s turf, Maron must figure out if she’s found a friend sent by God or a foe commissioned by the Devil.

Originally published in the late 90s, Phantom Thief Jeanne is a beautifully drawn Magical Girl series, complete with stylish characters and soft, intricate lines. The artwork details every strand of Maron’s hair and every fold of her clothing. Typical for this period of shoujo manga, and especially for the artwork of Arina Tanemura, all the characters have huge eyes that are pools of expression.

The premise is a bit silly: as the reincarnation of Jeanne D’Arc, Maron is commissioned to duty by an angel. This part makes a certain historical sense, as Joan of Arc did claim to have heavenly visions and was said to have been guided by God. However, a history buff might scoff at the conceit that Jeanne must steal possessed artwork—or rather, magically transform each painting into another picture that is not possessed. But let’s be honest: it’s doubtful that Jeanne’s intended audience will mistake this manga for biographical material. More likely, Phantom Thief Jeanne will find fans who want a good fantasy romance.

Phantom Thief Jeanne features a rare Magical Boy character: Chisato Nagoya, Maron’s new classmate, is also known as Phantom Thief Sinbad. Initially, the two make an awkward pair. While Chisato’s appearance coincidentally parallels Sinbad’s, Maron does not immediately make the connection. Chisato’s flirty, devil-may-care attitude initially infuriates her, and in turn, Sinbad infuriates Jeanne. Eventually, the two thieves begin to help one another and Maron slowly begins to trust Chisato. One of the key strengths of the series is its characters’ depth: Maron appears carefree, but she has serious abandonment issues after her parents left her on her own at a young age. When she confesses her pain, it feels as raw and genuine. As expected, there is also more to Chisato’s personality than meets the eye.

This series includes some suggestive humor and a scene in which a classmate tries to force a kiss upon Maron, indicating that it would be best suited to a teen audience. Despite its silly historical faux pas, Jeanne will be a phantom on library shelves. This series will not sit idle—expect heavy circulation.

Phantom Thief Jeanne, vol. 1
by Arina Tanemura
Art by Arina Tanemura
ISBN: 9781421565903
VIZ, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: Teen