In this conclusion of the Ronin Island series, Hana and Kenichi have to protect the Island and figure out how to defeat the shogun. The pair and their ragtag group of refugees have made it back to the Island, but the elders deny them entry because they are afraid they are all infected. Somehow, the people on the Island already know about the spores, even though that particular mutation happened just recently. Hana and Kenichi set up on the beach across the straight from the Island and prepare to make their stand against the Shogun, his for-hire bandits, and the byonin. Reinforcements arrive in the form of the Island elder and many of the Island’s soldiers. After the battle that robs the Shogun of many of his forces, everyone, including Hanna and Kenichi, retreat to the island to make preparations for the Shogun’s eventual invasion. Hana and Kenichi must make some difficult choices and sacrifices in order to successfully stop the invasion.
While the original story and concept of the byonin was conceived well before 2020, there is something well timed about a deadly virus that turns airborne and can mutate people into monsters. The Shogun is a man who has manipulated science into doing his own bidding, and he’s overall an ignorant man who refuses to listen to anyone wiser than himself. The parallels to real world 2020 are striking, and some readers may need some distance from this year in order to appreciate the story without reality blurring the lines.
There is a strong theme throughout these three volumes of chasing a sense of belonging, and it is unresolved at the end of this story. Hana is still an outcast, and the Islanders still have a deep-seated hatred towards anyone who they claim doesn’t belong. This is in stark contrast to the motto of the Island where everyone is welcome and can find a home amongst their ranks. The growth of Kenichi is understated as most of the story focuses on Hana, but he’s nevertheless made into a leader in the village and must help rebuild everything. Hana gives herself a task off the Island at the end of the story, and it could make for an interesting story, but this is the end of the Ronin Islandadventures.
Ronin Island Vol 3 By Greg Pak Art by Giannis Milonogiannis and Irma Kniivila ISBN: 9781684156238 Boom! Studios, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: Teen (13+) Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Character Traits: Japanese, Korean Creator Highlights: Korean-American
I Love You So Much, I Hate You is about the emotional and sexual relationship between Saori Fujimura and her supervisor, Ayako Asano. Saori is a single, lighthearted, twenty-something who has always been attracted to women and is desperate for the love and attention of her supervisor, Ayako. Ayako is a married woman who would much rather focus on her work than acknowledge her attraction to Ayako. The pair must overcome workplace gossip, heteronormativity, and Ayako’s hesitancy to share her true feelings for Saori if they wish to be happy together.
I Love You So Much, I Hate You is pretty standard fare for the genre. The themes of coming out and accepting one’s own sexual orientation tend to be omnipresent across many, LGBTQ+ manga. In this way, I Love You So Much, I Hate You is not particularly notable. Though Saori and Ayako do make a charismatic pair, they do not tread any new water.
As writer and illustrator Yuni explains in the postscript of I Love You So Much, I Hate You, the story began as a short manga, eventually adapted into a full volume. Unfortunately, this method does negatively reflect on the work as a whole. Namely, I Love You So Much, I Hate You feels rushed. The brevity of the text takes away from the emotional impact of the story. The resolution is reached far too quickly, and the reader may feel a bit wanting on completion of the story. However, Yuni’s clearly personal relationship to the story and the characters is inspiring and does add some amount of depth to the manga.
With that said, the artwork is competent and Yuni is clearly a skilled artist. Yuni is able to capture a range of emotions across the pages of the story, which is no easy feat in the traditional black-and-white manga style. Additionally, there are many sex scenes throughout the manga and, miraculously, none of them feel exploitative of the subjects. Yuni has a talent for capturing intimate, sexual moments without objectifying them. This may alone be enough to pique the interest of readers.
I Love You So Much, I Hate You, is by no means a “bad” manga. It has nice illustrations, likeable characters, and an uncomplicated premise. Yet, ultimately, I Love You So Much, I Hate You will most likely not fill a void in your library’s manga collection. If your library is lacking LGBTQ+ manga, more established titles, such as Saburouta’s Citrus or Nakatani Nio’s Bloom Into You, may be a better place to start.
It kills me to spoil the first-chapter reveal of this series, but if the series will continue and grow past its roots, then so be it. Yoshi no Zuikara: The Frog in the Well Does Not Know The Ocean starts out as a story of four classmates who transfer from their demolished local school to a larger, farther one. This introductory story is revealed to be the first chapter of protagonist Tohno Naruhiko’s new manga project, “Wakkamon.” That’s right – the whole thing kicks off with a story within a story, with the “real” story taking over afterward.
Volume two also starts with a glimpse of this manga and its coming-of-age tale.Tohno considers himself a fantasy manga creator, but his editor urges him to try something new and pull from personal experience growing up in the boonies. This approach could also be read as a metanarrative of sorts, given the author/illustrator Satsuki Yoshino started this series after the 18-volume Barakamon series about a calligrapher starting over professionally in the boonies. What is it about life in the country that makes the creative struggle so compelling?
As in Yoshino’s previous works, humor is mined from social interactions and well-intentioned accidents. For example, Tohno finds that his personal connection to his new slice-of-life story gets his creative juices flowing in a quick, satisfying manner. All he needs to do is commit the time and effort to getting it down on paper. However, that knowledge causes him to procrastinate and follow every distraction that crosses his path. Luckily, his helpful assistant, a fellow named Toshi-bou, knows of a nearby house Tohno can use as an isolation studio of sorts. He gets some work done, but a storm rolls in and the doors of the house are locked from the outside. Without the assistant to let him out, Tohno gets creeped out, especially once the sun goes down and he sees funeral portraits of the house’s previous owners.
By the first volume’s end, friends and relatives are seeking out his new comic and boosting sales any way they can. In volume two, Tohno meets a 10-year-old fangirl who swoons over one of his characters, goes to a book signing event in Tokyo, and speaks with his editor Hayashi, a woman. While the major plotline of the series involves a manga creator and the tasks required of him, it’s not generally about the actual-factual writing and drawing of his manga, at least not yet. The focus tends more toward Tohno’s insecurities and low self-esteem, such as the equally nerve-wracking possibilities that his book signing will draw a huge crowd or nobody. There are punchlines aplenty made from Tohno’s bewilderment at how to navigate train lines. The resulting effect is that of following an author around as their buddy and hearing their inner monologue for everything surrounding the making of a manga. Likewise, the art often zooms in on Tohno to emphasize his inner thoughts in contrast to his external interactions. Jagged speech bubbles convey his easily tilted personality, and thought bubbles follow him everywhere.
Yoshi no Zuikara is a great slice-of-life addition to any manga collection. Content-wise, a character says “shit,” there’s one drawing of a skimpily dressed character when someone mentions ecchi manga, and two adults enjoy beer during a dinner scene. In my opinion, none of these factors exclude teens from this recommendation, as they would probably latch onto the adventures of a timid but moderately successful artist as well as any adult. Tohno’s travails feel authentic and sincere while also never failing to lead to hilarity. Hand this manga to budding comics creators and fans of Barakamon, Handa-san, Bakuman, and Blank Canvas.
Yoshi no Zuikara: The Frog in the Well Does Not Know the Ocean By Satsuki Yoshino
Up front I must admit that I have been a long-time fan of Lafcadio Hearn’s writing on Japanese folklore especially Kwaidan(1904), the final short story collection published during his life time. Through his writing, based on research, oral tales from neighbors, and tales read to him by his wife, he became the first non-Japanese author to retell the folklore for readers of the English language.
Three of the retellings in this compilation are from Hearn’s final collection of “ghostly sketches”: “Nuki-kubi,”” Riki-Baka,” and “A Dead Secret”. An earlier work, Shadowings (1900), is also represented by three tales: “Reconciliation,” “Corpse Rider,” and “Screen Maiden.” The seventh tale, “Before the Supreme Court”, is from A Japanese Miscellany (1901). Author Sean Michael Wilson states in his brief source note that he has attempted to retain Hearn’s original wording as much as possible while adapting them to the manga format and I am happy to report that he has done what he had set out to accomplish. The source notes are adequate offering basic background information about Hearn and the retellers as well as information for finding the original tales and discovering more on your own.
The illustrations are evocative and heart breaking, focusing on facial expressions and emotions of all the characters, spectral and human. The large format of the publication and the simplicity of the backgrounds and panel arrangement add to the accessibility of the tales. It also reads right to left in traditional manga format. All seven folktales are about the complex interactions between the living and dead and while they are indeed ghostly, they are not all inescapably terrifying. But rather, they are instructive in offering glimpses of the beliefs and practices of Japanese society at the time Hearn collected and retold the tales.
I am not sure which one of the retellings is my favorite. The first tale, “A Dead Secret” is primarily about the return of a mother as a ghost but the underlying layers uncover hidden truths, love stories, and preserved secrets. “The Screen Maiden” tells the passionate and alarming tale of a young man who is almost fatally obsessed with a woman in a painting. As for the painting, “The space that she had occupied upon it remained a blank.” It is followed by a much darker tale of a masterless samurai and his adventures with deadly headless goblins. The images and antics in “Nuke-kubi” of the exasperated severed heads remained vivid long after I finished reading the story. “The Corpse Rider” is equally as visual, horrific, and memorable as it tells the story of a wife’s revenge on her ex-husband. The following entry, “Riki-Babka,” while horrifying did not leave this reader with a heavy heart, a ghost story with a more satisfying outcome, so to speak, reminiscent of one of my favorite clay figures, the golem of Jewish folklore. Hearn indicated that this tale was a personal experience narrative written exactly as it happened with only the names changed. And, if you can assert a ghost story as cheerful and redeeming, the penultimate tale “Before the Supreme Court” is exactly that. The initial horror is massaged by the very sensible conclusion. The compilation is completed by the eerie story of “Reconciliation” which leaves the reader contemplating the juxtaposition of justice and remorse.
This compilation was a refreshing read and highly recommended for those who appreciate exploring folklore and the genres of horror and ghost stories.
Manga Yokai Stories: Ghostly Tales from Japan By Lafcadio Hearn Sean Michael Wilson Art by Inko Ai Takita ISBN: 9784805315668 Tuttle, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: 14+ Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16) Character Traits: Japanese Buddhist Creator Highlights: Irish, Japanese Related to…: Book to Comic
I Don’t Know How to Give Birth! is a biographical manga about infertility, pregnancy, and childbirth and makes the subject humorous and relatable.
Manga artist and writer Ayami Kazama tells her personal story of what she experienced when she and her partner decided to have a baby. Kazama endured a variety of fertility treatments which are explained (in depth) before she was able to conceive. This subject can be traumatic for some women and the manga tends to gloss over any of the heavier emotions (since, in the end, they succeeded, it may seem less worrisome than to couples who are unable to have children).
This manga gives a very different cultural perspective of conception, prenatal care, delivery, breastfeeding, and postpartum care. It’s drawn in a very cutesy style, and, although to Western eyes, the characters are very childlike, they are all adults.
The artwork isn’t the only jarring difference. I was surprised to learn that Kazama never went to a gynecologist before the age of 30 so all of the physical exams were embarrassing and awkward for her. I chalk it up to the cultural differences between reproductive healthcare in Japan and the US.
As much as is revealed (Sensitive nipples! Maternity underwear! Perineum!) this isn’t a manga version of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Rather, it’s a Japanese version of the popular pregnancy advice book, The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy, showing the kinds of things women endure while having a baby.
Childbirth may be a natural process but I Don’t Know How to Give Birth! shows us that instinct isn’t everything. There’s no innate female birth knowledge, leaving new mothers to navigate this incredibly difficult event as best they can. And the struggle is real. Kazama isn’t necessarily on her own. Her husband is very supportive. His perspective is provided via text pages between chapters.
This manga reads like a cultural experience, too. There are plenty of things other cultures do differently and childbirth is definitely one of them. It was what drew me to the title. It will probably have niche appeal but it’s certainly a solid addition to a graphic novel or manga collection—especially for a library looking to expand its nonfiction options.
I personally bought a copy as a gift for a friend who recently had a baby, because it is honestly hilarious, and I think Kazama gives representation to artists and working mothers and she has done it in a heartfelt, matter-of-fact style that makes some of the scarier aspects of childbirth a little less daunting.
There is no publisher’s age rating. There is some explicit discussion about the mechanics of childbirth, some jokes about pornography and mentions of sex. It’s obviously a subject that will appeal more to adults, but it’s fine for older teens, who could benefit from fact-filled, experienced-based stories of pregnancy and childbirth.
I Don’t Know How to Give Birth! By Ayami Kazama ISBN: 9781975332884 Yen Press, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: none Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Highlights: Japanese
This story begins on a peaceful island off the coast of Japan, where two young people compete against each other to be stronger, faster, better. One is the Kenichi, the son of a great samurai, and the other is Hana, a Korean refugee and outcast. When a strange Shogun lands on their shores and demands fealty in return for protecting the island from the oncoming horrors, the villagers try to refuse. It becomes clear that the horrors are forces that they are not prepared to face. A strange plague has created a zombie-like horde bent on destroying the living. Hana and Kenichi go with the Shogun and quickly realize the young man has very sinister ambitions for an army of byonin, the plague infected humans. At the end of Volume 1, Hana and Kenichi take different paths to combating the mutants, Hana alongside the Shogun, trying to be the voice of reason, and Kenichi, cast out of the Shogun’s forces and protection.
Volume 2 opens with the two on separate paths back to the Island. Hana is traveling with the young, arrogant Shogun, and she tries to reason with the samurai Sato. Sato reveals why he is so loyal to the Shogun, despite the foolishness of most of the Shogun’s plans. The Shogun travels with his army of mutant byonin and humans to the island, where he believes he will be able to live in a paradise-on-earth after he’s bent the villagers to his will. Meanwhile, in exile, Kenichi is captured by bandits and has to fight his way out of a pit full of infected byonin. Both are fighting to protect their island from the monsters, both human and plague-ridden. Interspersed in the narrative is a series of flashbacks that provide insight into the childhood and training of Hana and Kenichi, and we see how their rivalry developed by the way each was treated. Kenichi, being born to privilege, was given more luxuries, but forced to learn difficult lessons and undergo taxing training from a young age. Hana was taken in by their sword master and often used as a training partner for Kenichi, but the villagers distain for Hana as a Korean and orphan motivated her to absorb the training that was meant for Kenichi.
Volume 2 provides some much needed backstory to our lead characters, and we get some insight into the Shogun and Sato, but the ancillary characters still have very little depth to them. In the first volume, villagers, and even the duos master, are given little depth or space in the narrative. In volume two, Hana inspires others to break off from the Shogun and fight with her to protect against the byonin, but they are little more than page filler. Hana and Kenichi are the singular focus and tend to steal the page any time they are there. After two volumes, we still don’t know much about the Shogun’s motivations other than he’s a spoiled, immature ruler who doesn’t understand how to keep people loyal to him. Rather, most of the narrative focuses on the admirable dedication Hana and Kenichi show to the island, both for very different reasons.
The first volume was published just as COVID-19 was becoming worldwide news. Now, this second volume hit shelves in the height of the pandemic. The publishing business plans out storylines years in advance, but this is another one of those coincidences of storylines hitting just at the moment they are most topical. The hysteria, lack of solutions to the byonin, the evolving nature of the plague, and the character’s evolving understanding of it is extremely similar to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide.
Milonogiannis’s illustrations are reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series with a little less finite detail in the facial features of characters. The action sequences are enjoyable and easy to follow, and her use of a different color palette to indicate flashbacks is helpful for keeping track of the narrative shifts.
Overall, this is an interesting story to draw parallels, but there needs to be a bit more depth and development of more than just the main characters for this series to be worthwhile.
Ronin Island Vol 1 By Greg Pak Art by Giannis Milonogiannis ISBN: 9781684154593 Boom, 2019 Publisher Age Rating:
Ronin Island Vol 2 By Greg Pak Art by Giannis Milonogiannis ISBN: 9781684155576 Boom, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Character Traits: Japanese, Korean Creator Highlights: Korean-American
Manga artist and writer Kaori Tsurutani’s BL Metamorphosis is a sweet story of a cross-generational friendship forged over an unusual pastime. Ichinoi Yuki, widowed, age 75, and high schooler Sayama Urara bond over a mutual love of Boy Love manga.
Manga literally means “comic” in Japanese, but has come to represent a very specific type of comic book or graphic novel style mostly produced in Japan. Boys Love or Yaoi (shortened to BL for this title) is a particular manga sub-genre featuring gay romance. In Japan, BL is almost exclusively produced by female artists for a mostly female audience.
In volume 1, Ichinoi stops in the bookstore where Urara works part-time and picks a manga to read based on the beautiful artwork on the cover. When she reads it, she is so hooked on the romantic plot that she returns to the store to buy more of the series.
Urara, a BL fan herself, feels isolated and unable to discuss her favorite manga because of the topic. But when she and Ichinoi connect over their love of the books, they start spending time together, even attending a fan convention to meet the artist.
The unlikely pair show the wide appeal for this particular type of manga, but it also reveals our need for human connections. This series gently touches on issues such as the isolation of the elderly and the young. As their relationship grows, they find themselves growing in ways they didn’t foresee. Urara lamented that she didn’t have anyone to talk about her favorite series, but she recognizes the chance with Ichinoi and enthusiastically, if awkwardly, begins sharing her own collection of BL manga with the older woman.
In some very amusing ways, volume 2 reveals a few issues BL fans face. Some of the material is explicit—and Ichinoi’s adult daughter is shocked to find copies of the manga in her mother’s home. When Urara tries to buy a self-published manga at the con, she is unable to because it’s adult material and she is underage. But many of the plots of BL manga revolve around the romance. And the attraction to its audience is undeniable.
The metamorphosis in the title is subtle. Urara lacks confidence and experience in talking to people. She recognizes Ichinoi’s experience and wisdom and wants to ask her advice on dealing with real-life relationships. Ichinoi, who is retired but teaches children calligraphy, is encouraging and urges Urura to try her own hand at drawing.
Tsurutani’s artwork is soft and sweet. The elderly are not often represented in manga so it’s refreshing to see an older face. There are panels of the pair’s favorite manga between chapters and as a manga-within-a-manga. There is also a bonus chapter in volume 2 featuring the manga artist whose work Ichinoi and Urara enjoys.
I am an unabashed fan of Boys Love manga and especially of this cleverly layered series. It’s not condescending or comical, but a warm, witty story of an unlikely, but believable friendship. It’s rated for teens but will have real appeal for adult manga fans, especially fans of the Boys Love genre.
BL Metamorphosis is published by Seven Seas Entertainment and a third volume is scheduled for publication in December 2020.
BL Metamorphosis, vols. 1-2 By Kaori Tsurutani ISBN:
A ubiquitous contemporary legend for Japanese children is that of the toilet ghost, Hanako-san. Hanako, or Toire no Hanako (Hanako of the Toilet) as she is known is Japan, is a somewhat modern ghost found in the girl’s bathroom on the third floor of almost every elementary school and can be summoned by knocking three times on the stall. She is the Bloody Mary of Japanese elementary schools.
She doesn’t have a distinct origin, but reports of her go back to the 1950s. Some legends say she was an abused child who was caught by her angry parent in the school’s bathroom, or she was a student who committed suicide in the girl’s bathroom, or she was a victim in a school which was burnt down during one of the WW2 bombing raids where she was playing hide and seek in the bathroom when the bombs struck. In most stories, though, it is agreed that she died (and thus now resides) in the 3rd stall of the 3rd floor bathroom. And she waits there, ready to be summoned by daring or curious children. Her appearance and behavior are as variable as her origin stories. She may wear an old-fashioned red dress, want to play, or drag victims into the underworld through the toilet. There are some stories where Hanako will protect children from other bathroom-based ghosts but often, when someone goes into the bathroom by herself and hears a voice asking if she wants to be friends, there are evil repercussions. If the answer is yes, Hanako’s ghost will come up beneath her and drag her down through the toilet. If reply is no, Hanako will simply cut her to pieces. Regardless of the particulars of the story, legend-tripping encounters abound where girls are challenged by their classmates to summon Hanako-san.
Hanako has appeared in numerous movies, anime series and television shows since the 1990s. The ghost has also been the focus of several manga series. In Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun, however, this legendary female ghost has been recast as a boy who presides over the six other Wonders of the Kamome Academy Middle School. Similarities to the traditional ghost are indicated by the outdated school uniform worn by Hanako-kun and the location of the ghost: in the third stall of the bathroom on the third floor of the school. In this series, unlike the traditional legends, summoning the ghost offers a chance to have wishes granted. Yashiro Nene, a high school girl, summons Hanako-san to aid her in her romantic fantasies. She quickly discovers his gender, but the summoning results in the two teaming up to keep the school protected from malevolent spirits. At the beginning of the series, Nene appears shallow, insecure, and naïve, but her personality fortifies quickly. Even so, her innocence and basic decency remain consistent, as Hanako gradually helps Nene understand her insecurities and her superficial thoughts about romance and friendship. She quickly realizes that Hanako does not possess the ability to grant wishes nor is he bound to the school bathroom location. The supernatural emphasis of the story arc is supplemented by the genres of horror, science fiction, mystery, romance, humor, and includes numerous Japanese legendary ghosts.
Yen Press has been publishing the series digitally since 2017 and physically since January 2020. This review is focused on the first three print volumes. The art work is stylized with bold tones and little shading. The detailed and individualized characters are animated and appealing. Each volume begins with a vividly colored splash page and table of contents. The attractive manga include short vignettes that offer further details about specific characters on the reverse of the cover as well as translation notes at the end of each volume.
In Volume 1, Nene consumes, in an aborted attempt to gain the attention of her unrequited crush, a mermaid scale with an inadvertent curse of turning her into a fish and becoming enslaved by the mermaid. In a rescue attempt, Hanako swallows the second mermaid scale, and saves her from enslavement, which ultimately makes her his assistant in solving unusual hauntings and the balance between the spirit world and the human world, as indicated by the Seven Mysteries of the Kamome Academy. They are joined by several other students in their exploits, including the exorcist Kou and Nene’s friend Akane Aoi, who constantly tells Nene scary stories and urban legends. Their first exploit involves the mystery of the Misaki Stairs, which is continued in the second volume. This story arc intensifies the expanding character development of Nene, her awkward relationship with Hanako, and her loyalty to her friend Aoi, who has gone missing. Hanako’s real name is Yugi Amane and probably attended the school over 50 years previously. As one of the Seven Mysteries, Hanako has a duty to oversee all the supernaturals who exist in the school and maintain correct relations between the humans and the paranormal. The reader, along with Nene, realizes that there is a secret mystery surrounding the death of Hanako and the essential nature of this toilet ghost. Is he benevolent or evil? Another ongoing puzzle involves the Mokke, small endearing and mysterious spirits who look like rabbits, that support Hanako. They can only be seen by people with spiritual powers such as Kou and his older brother, Teru, also an exorcist. So why can Nene see them?
Volume 3 furthers the ambiguity surrounding the Seven Mysteries as Kou and Nene travel to the Four P.M. Bookstacks, where they encounter Hanako’s former teacher, sensei Tsuchigomori, who has been teaching at the same school since Hanako died.
“In this school’s library there’s a special storeroom you can only enter at four p.m. All the books there have someone’s name written on them. Each one contains a record of that person’s life at the school. What they did there? What they will do here? Past, present, and future—it’s all written in the book” (10-11).
This reviewer is anxiously awaiting Volume 4 to discover more about these characters and the mysterious academy. (I prefer to read print materials to those online so I will bide my time!)
Highly recommended for teens who enjoy ghost tales, mysteries, and strong characters. The anime series is also extremely popular and there are consumer products available for purchase.
Toilet-bound Hanako-Kun, vols. 1-3 By Aidalro ISBN:
Fence: Rivals returns to the tense environment of the students at Kings Row; with Nicholas starting to realize just how much work he has to catch up not only to Seiji, but to Jesse. This is the first time the Kings Row boys will compete in a team competition and their lack of teamwork is very apparent. Seiji may finally have to admit that fencing isn’t just a solo sport, and learn to trust his team.
Since Rivals is a continuation from the first three volumes, there’s a lot of backstory that will be missing if a reader picks this volume up first, especially because Fence doesn’t fall into the problem many mainstream comics do of re-explaining things at the start of each issue, which gets incredibly repetitive once the issues are collected into a volume. This does mean however it’s also hard to talk about the plot of Rivals without running into spoiler territory.
That being said, the story does still move pretty slowly. At least in Rivals, we don’t spend the entire graphic novel covering just one event, so compared to the previous volumes the story is starting to pick up. A primary issue is that often, the story stops to explain basic fencing concepts using Nicholas as the in-story reason to do so. This is understandable, to a certain degree, because fencing isn’t as common a sport in most groups as say soccer or football, so the creators can’t assume readers have a base understanding of the sport’s rules. It does make Nicholas look, now in the fourth volume of this series, like he never actually learned to fence and just was incredibly lucky to have stumbled into a fencing uniform, across the piste, and somehow won matches.
The art has always been very clean and simple, and this volume is no exception. It does seem like the manga influences are getting more apparent, with use of screentones and gestures common to manga as well as making characters small and cute (a state referred to as chibi, a Japanese word for short) in certain situations. Something I’ve found kind of amusing with Fence’s art style is how it tries to make fencing uniforms look cool. Unfortunately, fencing uniforms are just not cool, and often look a little silly. Johanna the Mad does her best though, I’ll give her that. The one problem I have with the art’s simplicity is how often there are no background details in panels, at best a wash of color and maybe some action lines or generic people shapes. It really solidifies that this is a story about the people, not the setting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but can be frustrating for a reader that likes background details.
As an American series, Fence is pretty unusual for covering fencing, but because of the themes of teamwork, rivalry, and hints of romance it’s the perfect comic for fans of manga like Haikyuu! and Kuroko’s Basketball, or novels like Foxhole Court. I know, I know this is a comic review but C.S. Pacat is better known for her Captive Prince trilogy and Foxhole Court feels like the novel version of Fence.
A final note, in case readers are confused: The series was changed from an ongoing one, released in numbered volumes, to original graphic novels, which means going forward each volume will have a subtitle, like this one. So there are volumes 1-3 of Fence, and now Fence: Rivals. There is also a novel coming out in the fall, written by Sarah Rees Brennan. No word yet on subsequent graphic novels.
Fence: Rivals By C.S. Pacat Art by Johanna the Mad ISBN: 9781684155385 Boom! Box, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: teen Series Reading Order: https://www.goodreads.com/series/213127-fence (Wikipedia or Goodreads)
Browse for more like this title NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+) Character Traits: East Asian, White, , Gay
The first word that comes to mind with Maison Ikkoku is grounded. Rumiko Takahashi’s reputation precedes her, including in the west, where series like Lum Urusei Yatsura, Ranma ½, and Inuyasha served as gateway series into anime and manga. Where those series used an alien visitor, kung-fu slapstick, and fantasy tropes, respectively, Maison Ikkoku uses ordinary people. Being a product of the turn of the 80s, everyone has fairly realistic, dark hair. As another example of grounded visuals, moments of exaggerated humor only slightly distort characters’ faces or figures compared to more modern series’ chibi figures and razor-sharp hairstyles. The two main characters are Godai, a frustrated college applicant, and Kyoko, the manager of the boarding house where he lives. He falls for her at first sight, with a string of misunderstandings, rivalries, and personal revelations in their journey toward ending up together. “It must be nice to be so simple,” a neighbor says about Godai, and it’s true of this manga, too.
Takahashi’s got plenty of gags to keep the pages turning, though. The other residents of Maison Ikkoku interfere with Godai and Kyoko’s affections at every turn, to the point that Godai imagines them as antagonists in the sky laughing down at him and his ambitions. Godai’s neighbor Yotsuya is a peeping tom who blackmails Godai over his stash of porno magazines and hole in the wall that allows him to see into the room of his other neighbor, the bar hostess Akemi.
It is at this point I should mention that this series was serialized from 1980 to 1987, complete with sexual humor that makes light of men’s overwhelming desire for visual stimulation. Some chapters go several steps further, with characters accidentally or purposefully grabbing and groping Kyoko, often resulting in a hard slap that leaves a hand print. There is a daydream scene of a topless Kyoko embracing her dog as her lover (she named the dog after her late husband, which leads to misunderstandings). One night, a drunken Godai carries Kyoko to his room but passes out before any sexual assault can happen – meanwhile, Kyoko apologizes to her late husband in her mind while outwardly shouting for help. As much as Kyoko is objectified, including scenes on a tennis court that look up her skirt, Takahashi deserves credit for swapping to her perspective every so often. She is a young woman in mourning who sees the potential in Godai but isn’t committed, either. She has her own life beyond her tenants, even if they butt into her business all the time. Still, compared to Takahashi’s later works, this one leans disappointingly hard on a “boys will be boys” attitude.
Your mileage may vary, but I don’t think the misogynist humor completely ruins the overall effect of the book. Takahashi renders an incredibly sweet Japan, complete with changing seasons and weather that give the boarding house plenty of character. Rain causes leaks, howling winds keep people up at night, and on a sunny day, the road seems to curve in around people walking along. Time passes using outdoor imagery, always inviting the reader to start fresh with the cast for another chapter. A mother and young son who also live in the boarding house contribute to a feeling of nostalgia, as the son has a childhood crush that mirrors Godai’s spellbound behavior around Kyoko. The mother provides a seen-it-before perspective, one that the other tenants echo as they play peanut gallery for the would-be lovebirds. These are events that the characters will clearly remember fondly, even if they tended to get on each other’s nerves and criticize each other. This is the strength of the slice of life genre, which could be likened to a sitcom show here. Godai is always attempting to declare his love for Kyoko, but as soon as she says yes the series would lose its dramatic tension, so poor timing and alternative suitors keep them apart.
It’s great to see this series in print again as collector’s editions, having been collected before in thinner volumes in the early 2000s. Takahashi is a one of a kind talent, and there’s a satisfaction to tracing how her humor and characterization evolved from one series to the next. Not everything about this series has aged well, especially its sexual politics, but its humor and heart earn it a recommendation for older teens and adults.
Maison Ikkoku Collector’s Edition, Vol. 1 By Rumiko Takahashi ISBN: 9781974711871 Viz, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: Teen Plus (16+) Series Reading Order: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Maison_Ikkoku_chapters (Wikipedia or Goodreads)
Browse for more like this title NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+) Character Traits: East Asian Straight Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator