Fence: Rivals

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)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: East Asian, White, , Gay

Maison Ikkoku Collector’s Edition, Vol. 1

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)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: East Asian Straight
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator

The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese and The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice

The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese has a lot more going for it than just the very unique title. This gay, romance manga by artist and writer Setona Mizushiro breaks a lot of stereotypes of the genre.

In this adult drama, salaryman Kyoichi Ootomo is busted by a private investigator for cheating on his wife. The private dick just happens to be Imagase Wataru—an acquaintance of Kyoichi’s from university. And not just any acquaintance, he’s a gay man who has been been suffering from a bad case of unrequited love for the oblivious adulterer, Kyoichi.

Imagase decides to use his leverage against Kyoich. If he agrees to have sex with Imagase, the detective won’t reveal the other man’s indiscretions. This is a typical plot device in manga. A gay character pursues a straight man and they end up having incredibly dubiously consensual sex. Except, The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese gives readers something that is as rare as gold: A complex, interwoven tale of love, infidelity and a whole batch of (okay, three) female characters with agency! Too often, the characters in gay romance manga seem to exist on a planet inhabited solely by men.

This volume and its follow-up, interestingly titled, The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice, delves deep into what it means to be in a relationship and how one’s views and actions (or lack thereof) affect a partner.

Kyoichi is an easy-going philanderer. Alternately falling into bed with women and Imagase because it’s the path of least resistance. And Imagase, with the deeply suspicious nature of a private eye, can never feel secure in his relationship with Kyoichi.

Part romance, part couples-therapy, it can be emotionally traumatic reading. Visually, the manga are quite good. These are well drawn. The realistic visuals lack any gag panels due to the more serious, mature nature of the plot. Muzishiro was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2007. They are stylish and explicitly drawn with clean lines, attractive characters and nice background work. 

Some readers take issue with the gay romance manga because it can seem that many of the plots are lifted from teen romances. Which is not all bad. Both genres share a lot of the same tropes and both are (for the most part) written for a female audience. But for readers looking for a dramatic, in-depth story of grown ups dealing with real-life problems in a romance, The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese and The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice will definitely fill that need.

Please note that both volumes are labeled for explicit material and are for adult readers. They are great additions to any adult manga collection. Interestingly, I wouldn’t consider this a series, even though it is listed as such. Both volumes can be read as stand-alone books and not necessarily in order.

The manga, published in Japan in 2006, is licensed in English by Seven Seas Entertainment and has been made into a live action film being released this year in Japan.

The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese
By Setona Mizushiru
ISBN: 9781642757590
Seven Seas Entertainment, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Adult (18+)

The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice
By Setona Mizushiru
ISBN: 9781642757606
Seven Seas Entertainment, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Adult (18+)

Blood On The Tracks, Vols. 1 & 2

Reading a Shuzo Oshimi manga is like watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie: those who are familiar with the psychological play and dramatic framing will be tickled pink at all the teases on the way to the horrible lynchpin that confirms the audience’s worst fears. Newer audiences will be taken in by what seems on the surface to be an ordinary story, but for the extended pauses and close-ups signaling something is out of place to be revealed soon. The dread builds over several deliberately paced chapters like a slowly inflating balloon, and when it bursts in volume one, readers will be scrambling for volume two like Hot Ones guests reaching for milk. Blood On The Tracks is just that spicy.

Japanese thirteen-year-old Seiichi (Sei) inhabits the most milquetoast, middle-class life. His father works long hours as a salaryman, and his housekeeper mother, Seiko, is a pleasant, agreeable guardian in his life, right down to asking which of two choices he’d like for dinner each evening. His school friends are a little rougher around the edges and tease him somewhat, as does his cousin Shigeru, but all in all Sei’s got a good, stable life. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything goes wrong, so horribly, horribly wrong! Oshimi’s series are great at looking gentle and inviting one minute then veering into unexpected nightmare territory the next. During a family camping trip, Seiko goes to extreme lengths to protect her son when she perceives Shigeru as a threat to him. In the second volume, when a school crush is beginning to blossom into a relationship, Seiko again intervenes in an over-the-top, monstrous way, revealing herself as unhealthily attached to her son in a way that has quietly been sapping any potential for personal growth and social connection from his life. Anyone who’s read a Courtney Summers book and thought, “Wow, these characters go to extreme lengths, but I can’t look away” won’t be able to put down Blood On The Tracks.

When it comes to manga horror, I enjoy Junji Ito and Kazuo Umezu, but I savor Oshimi’s more grounded storytelling in a way the others’ wackiness prevents. Ito and Umezu strike at primal fears while also asking, “Can you believe what just happened?” With Oshimi, there’s no doubt what people will see, allow, and do for themselves. His use of visual direction, timing, and visual metaphor all elevate the material beyond shock value. I could tell you a child is mortally wounded in this series, but I’d also have to include how the framing of a cliff is used to suggest characters are approaching a dangerous point of no return, or are perhaps already leaping over it. I could point out an element of incest in the story (and am), but not without emphasizing the unsettling, skin-creeping nature of its use in controlling a minor. The same open, clear framing of the “safe” chapters come back around like a microscope to zoom in on the compromising of naive Sei’s soul. This is not titillation of R-rated excesses, but an unflinching look at bone-deep corruption and how far it can go. Two volumes in, this series feels like a more domestic version of Oshimi’s The Flowers of Evil.

Where age recommendations are concerned, this is definitely Older Teen, at least for now. Sometimes reading stories about toxic, harmful people and lives spiraling out of control are a good way to reassure oneself of personal balance and seeking out restorative hugs from loved ones. Stock this in your manga collection with the knowledge that readers will return it while gasping at the events that transpired, followed by demanding to know when the rest of the series will arrive. Sei and Seiko’s happy faces on the covers will be waiting for them.

Blood On The Tracks, Vols.1 & 2
By Shuzo Oshimi
ISBN:

VolumeISBN
19781949980134
29781949980394

Vertical, 2020
Publisher Age Rating:
Series Reading Order: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_on_the_Tracks_(manga) (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: East Asian Straight
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator

Not Your Idol, vol. 1

Being an idol is not what Nina Kamiyama expected. It is what Nina dreamed of as a child, becoming an idol to make people happy. And it is what she worked hard for and finally achieved as the center of the idol group Pure Club. In Pure Club, she absolutely shined, performing under the pseudonym Karen Amamiya. But at a handshake event, Karen is attacked by a knife-wielding stranger which left her traumatized and scarred, physically and emotionally. Not Your Idol by Aoi Makino is Nina’s story as she adjusts back into her life as a high school student, shedding the “Karen” identity, her idol status.

Not Your Idol is also not what I expected. The description reads that Nina “shuns her femininity and starts dressing as a boy,” which at first glance I somehow interpreted as Nina identifying as a boy. This is not the case, and perhaps I should read these blurbs a little closer. Rather, Not Your Idol instead starts off strong with what seems to be the primary thread: exploring the ways in which characters evaluate and value others and themselves, based solely on physical appearance, all filtered through the lens of Nina working through her personal trauma.

This is clear from basically page two, as high school boys are joking and commenting on their female classmates: “this one wears too much make-up”, “I like that one—she’s small.” Hikaru, one of the other main characters, is instead focused on his Judo training, until he bumps, literally, into Nina. Both Hikaru and Nina and their interactions, establish the clear dichotomy: instead of being driven externally by their appearances like their classmates, both Nina and Hikaru are driven by internal factors: Hikaru by his passion for Judo and Nina in her hiding and healing from trauma.

This is even clearer with the introduction of Nina’s foil, her classmate Miku. Miku, who is focused on her appearance and the traditionally feminine aspects of her appearance, like skirts and makeup, continually presents the opposite, more “idol” version of Nina’s identity. She questions why Nina doesn’t wear a skirt, despite having a good figure. Nina shoots back, “Is that all I have going for me?”

The manga continues to bring up instances of assault or threats to Nina and her female classmates. The narrative weaves in and around a range of reactions from classmates, including victim-blaming and ideas of who “can” or “can’t” be victims, but without ever delving too deeply or sometimes without any satisfying measure of resolve before flowing into the next frames. This could seem at times to the detriment of the story, but ultimately instead keeps the story centered wholly on Nina. There are moments of empowerment, where Nina is standing tall and full-framed, but for the most part the story and the art remain intimate and close. Panels are close-ups of eyes, of faces, of hands. The reader stays close to Nina, frame by frame, reminding the reader that the story is filtered through her, her trauma, and her journey.

It’s hard to say exactly where Not Your Idol is heading after just the first volume. The relationship between Nina and Hikaru, who discovered her former idol identity, takes a dramatic and tense turn at the end. Nina is clearly suffering under post-traumatic stress with triggered flashbacks to her attack and attacker. And what more, whether it is conflict or friendship, may develop between Nina and Miku? They are so clearly on two opposite ends of a spectrum ranging from embracing femininity and attention to shunning both completely.

Teen and adult readers who are ready for a slow drama, intimate and tense, and who are willing to sit with complicated themes with no quick, ready answers, may find that with Not Your Idol. The content may be a little too mature for younger readers. My hope is that Not Your Idol will find more similarities to books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson or Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, rather than the way abuse is treated in manga like Hot Gimmick by Miki Aihara or Black Bird by Kanoko Sakurakoji.

Not Your Idol, Vol. 1
By Aoi Makino
ISBN: 9781974715169
Viz Media, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: T+ (16+)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: East Asian Straight

Secret XXX

Shohei Ikushima is a part-time worker at a pet shop specializing in rabbits. He adores the sweet, fluffy creatures, as well as the cute owner of the store, Itsuki Mito. But in spite of his attraction to Mito, he never sticks around after his shifts.

He’s hiding a secret from his boss that could endanger his job. It doesn’t stop Mito from noticing something special about Shohei. Secret XXX unfolds like a typical boys love manga. Beautiful boy meets gorgeous boy, and it doesn’t take much for sparks to fly. In this case, however, Mito is harboring dark secrets of his own. What will happen when their secrets are exposed? Will the couple be able to overcome what sets them apart?

This one-shot romance unfolds in three short chapters with efficient use of romantic manga tropes, including dubiously consensual sex, a meddlesome brother with a brother complex, cross dressing, fear of discovery, and a sweet, happily ever after.

The plot is as deep as a bird bath, but the art is very good and it’s a bon bon of a boys love title. This is the first of Hinohara’s works to be licensed in English by SubLime, Viz Media’s boys love imprint, but the publisher is also releasing another title, Therapy Game, which features a character from Secret XXX (Mito’s younger brother, Minato).

Thin plot aside, the manga is really well drawn. Explicitly so. This makes this a strictly adult-only addition for any boys love fan or a library with a large manga collection. I enjoyed the artwork more than the writing, ranking the work up with two of my favorite current boys love mangaka, Ranmaru Zayira and Scarlet Beriko.

Secret XXX
By Meguru Hinohara
ISBN: 9781974712410
SubLime, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 18+

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Japanese, Gay

Knights Club, Volume 1 and 2

Collect bands of bravery, find weapons, fight monsters, and solve puzzles: these elements and more await readers of the interactive graphic novel series Knights Club. With the tagline, “The Comic Book You Can Play,” the series is part choose-your-own-adventure and part fantasy tabletop game like Dungeons and Dragons, setting out to engage middle-grade readers and inviting them to participate in the action.

For this review, I explored the first two graphic novels in the series, Knights Club: The Bands of Bravery and Knights Club: The Message of Destiny. Though both books have largely the same central characters, and allow readers to carry over character stats from the first to the second book, they can stand alone and are fairly different in terms of game elements offered. Both books, however, share the same choose-your-own-adventure style of navigation through the comic. Each panel is numbered, and somewhere within the art of a panel, readers are directed to specific numbered panels to continue. In some panels, there is only one option, while others may have a few to choose from: for example, a panel depicting a crossroads where each path is marked with a different number. Occasionally, numbers are subtle or intentionally tricky to find in order to create something of a puzzle.

The first book, The Bands of Bravery, is focused on gathering as many bands (bracelets) as possible within an allotted period of time. This is largely achieved with a hidden object-style approach, where readers must scrutinize panels to spot them. In a similar manner, players can pick up gold pieces, weapons, or items. Occasionally, there are choices about where to go next or how to proceed in an interaction with another character. Players are given some basic stats, strength, agility, charisma, intelligence—and can track their adventure with one of the Quest Tracker sheets provided in the front of the book, with extra printable sheets available online.

In The Message of Destiny, the interactive play gets a lot more complex. The Quest Tracker includes many more stats, ranging from abilities to experience points to strike points (essentially, hit points or health points). There is a simple (“squire”) level of play, in which battles involve readers comparing two numbers to see which is higher and who wins. The book is primarily designed for the more advanced (“knight”) level of play, in which readers must keep track of these changing stats and spin a paper wheel to determine actions within a battle. There are also cards readers can obtain through the story that allow for special actions or improve certain stats. The Quest Trackers, cards, and spinning wheel are available as pages within the book or online as printable sheets.

Both of the Knights Club graphic novels overall left me with mixed feelings. Neither book has very much story to speak of, with many of the panels simply showing an empty path or some natural scenery along with the number of the next panel. Each has an overarching idea of a plot (collect bands or deliver a message), but otherwise, encounters with other characters or creatures are random and the world-building is basic. Players also get very little sense of the character they are playing; each one is mainly a collection of stats without much personality or background. The role-playing and storytelling elements of games like Dungeons & Dragons simply aren’t found in these books.

Since navigating the book means jumping from panel to panel, and since many panels only take a moment to absorb, “reading” can often feel like quickly and repeatedly flipping from page to page. Many elements also depend on the honor system and how good a reader’s memory is. For example, the books explain that if you end up going through the same panel twice in a journey, you don’t need to fight the creature depicted a second time. The same holds true for picking up items or gold if you pass through a panel again. A number of panels look similar, and if you do multiple play-throughs of the book, it’s easy to forget when you have already been through a panel or fought a creature. More than once, I forgot to adjust my stats when I was supposed to. It’s also easy to simply skip things you don’t want to do or backtrack if you hit a bad ending.

For my tastes, The Bands of Bravery was a bit too simple, and mainly felt like endlessly flipping through panels looking for small details. On the other hand, I found The Message of Destiny too complicated, to the point where keeping track of all the complex elements felt like work rather than fun. I had trouble feeling invested enough to put in that work, as the story and characters are so one-dimensional. There is also very little diversity or variety among the characters. In the first book, players can choose from one of three generic white boys, while in book two, a player can choose from the same three white boys or an adult female knight (also white). Most of the human characters (quite possibly all) encountered within the books are also white, and are all generally similar-looking fantasy peasants, farmers, warriors, and royalty. Men and women fill mostly stereotypical gender roles, and male characters appear far more frequently.

Another issue I ran into with the comics was when things were confusing or did not work as intended. Since this game is played alone through a book, rather than in a group of friends like most tabletop games, players are left without a way to ask questions, gain clarification, or troubleshoot issues. For example, I printed some of the Quest Trackers and other documents from the comics’ website, and initially found myself confused during the instructions portion of the book, as some of the terms used in the text were different than what was on my printed Quest Tracker (i.e. force vs. strength, endurance vs. resistance). For other instructions, I would have liked to ask clarifying questions. I also found myself uncertain how to use the battle wheel provided for the second book. The text of the comic recommends spinning it between your fingers (which does not work well), while the instructions on the wheel itself say to spin a pencil on top of it (which also did not work well). Overall, I wished there was an online system or app I could use to interact with the books instead to make things simpler.

While the Knights Club books were not appealing to me, it may be a matter of taste, and there may be young readers who would enjoy them as an introduction or supplement to more typical tabletop games. The books are not a great choice for a library or for classroom loaning, however, unless use of them is being carefully monitored to make sure readers use separate printed pages and do not write in the book or tear out the trackers. Though the series tries to mimic playing a tabletop role-playing game, it’s certainly a different experience than playing together with friends in a more structured and collaborative setting with more focus on storytelling. Readers will likely have a wide variety of feelings on how enjoyable they find the interactive elements.

Knights Club, Volume 1 and 2
By Shuky
Art by Waltch Novy
ISBN:

VolumeISBN
19781683690559
29781683690658

Quirk Productions, Inc., 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Series Reading Order: https://www.goodreads.com/series/242719 (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)

Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku, Volume 1

Samurai and ninja are staples in manga. Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku has both. This horror/action manga is set in Edo Period Japan and centers around a ninja assassin named Gabimaru. Raised from childhood to be a cold-blooded killer, Gabimaru is called “the Hollow” for the lack of emotion he shows towards his profession.

When we meet him, he has been betrayed by his companions and captured. Facing a death sentence from the Shogun’s most skilled executioners, the Yamada Clan, Gabimaru turns out to be surprisingly difficult to execute–and believe me, they TRY. The irony is that Gabimaru has a death wish.

But the one thing keeping Gabimaru clinging to this world is his sweet, peace-loving wife. And he is offered a deal which may allow him to return to her. He just needs to agree to go on a suicide mission to a mysterious, mystical island to recover an ancient elixir of immortality for the Shogun. And he has to do it with a group of murderous criminals, watched over by a Yamada executioner who is under orders to kill him if he steps out of line.

There are certainly shades of Blade of the Immortal (BotA) in Hell’s Paradise. But unlike Manji, Gabimaru isn’t on a quest for redemption. He’s already been redeemed by the love of a good woman. He just has to do this job to get back to her. The character on a quest, is actually his executioner—Sagiri Yamada, a rare female Decapitator Asaemon. Her skills with the sword are unparalleled, but she lacks confidence and is seeking validation in this dangerous mission.

Sagiri and Gabibaru are forced into an uneasy alliance. The Island, called Shinsenkyo, appears to be a paradise but it is filled with bizarre monsters and strange horrors that have killed every single man the Shogun has sent to the place, which is why he decided to give a motley array of deranged death row inmates a shot.

I can’t help but keep comparing this manga to BotA, which is a bit unfair as BotA is one of the greatest samurai manga ever made, and is enjoying a resurgence due to a successful, second anime series shown in early 2020 on Amazon Prime as well as upcoming deluxe hardcover omnibus editions coming out. Hell’s Paradise has its own style. Mangaka Yuji Kaku is a skilled artist. The fight scenes flow and the characters are well designed.

The plot is fast-paced without a lot of exposition. But it’s easy enough to figure out who’s who in this deadly mission. My only disappointment with this manga is the text. Gabimaru’s speech seems ultra-modern and more than a little smart assed. While Sagiri’s speech is a little more formal, in line with a historical manga. This may be a lack in the translation.

While it’s difficult for any samurai manga to creep out of BotA’s shadow, Hell’s Paradise has some things going for it. The plot is more straightforward, without the Machiavellian politics of its predecessor. It’s also less dark. It’s violent, yes. Full of bloodshed and some body horror, but lacking in the pure sadism and twisted sexual violence of BotA. That said, Hell’s Paradise is still marked for explicit content and is better suited to an adult collection, but might be of interest to older teen readers.

The first volume certainly makes me want to keep reading to see what happens. The first two volumes are currently available in Viz’s Signature line, with a slightly larger format.

Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku, Volume 1
By Yuji Kaku
ISBN: 9781974713202
Viz Media, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 18+

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Japanese

Jujutsu Kaisen, vols. 1-3

In one day, Yuji Itadori loses one of his only ties to the world and gains a new reason to live. It’s a good thing he’s naturally so strong, because he’s about to face the incredible challenge of being thrown into the world of jujutsu sorcerers, curses, and an attempt to destroy humanity entirely. Oh, and he needs to train for the inter-school goodwill tournament.

Jujutsu Kaisen is an exciting debut for creator Gege Akutami, who has only previously published a few short stories. As a full series debut, there are rough edges to the story, particularly when it comes to pacing. We go from Yuji learning about curses and jujutsu sorcerers, abandoning his old life so he can train, to almost dying several times partially because the people responsible for him keep throwing him into danger with little to no warning, within the first volume alone. By the third volume, we’re told of a plot to take down humanity, when we’re still barely learning some of the basic concepts behind jujutsu sorcery and terms around curses. Much of that knowledge is conveyed outside of the story in side notes from the creator, too. It’s an interesting world Akutami is building, but I have concerns about where this can escalate to without becoming another Bleach.

Similarly, the art has some roughness to it. Proportions can get strange in some panels, and several characters have very similar features or hair styles. Akutami jokes in the between chapter bits about how many characters wear eye obscuring objects (sunglasses, cloth wraps) but it is kind of a weird truth of Jujutsu Kaisen that at least three characters wear things over their eyes at least most of the time. The line work is a little sloppy, though that could also be the style Akutami is going for. To me, it feels like lines that could use more refining, especially paired with the chunkier lines he starts using by the third volume. Otherwise, there’s a good sense of motion in the art and, while emotions are often very exaggerated, it doesn’t feel out of place.

Despite the general roughness of Jujutsu Kaisen, it’s obvious Akutami has a lot of passion about the world he’s creating, and this is something of an unusual story. The general mood is that of horror, but it doesn’t go fully into horror all the time. There’s also a quirky sense of humor running throughout, between the school president’s preference for stuffed animal curse creatures to Aoi Todo’s introduction including the kinds of girls he prefers (and taking it very seriously that Yuji reply in kind). There are actually a number of adult characters, somewhat unusual for a school-based shonen, and they’re pretty interesting. The character that would be a Kakashi-type is actually pretty arrogant and self-involved, with big plans for the future. The girl characters, while in the minority, aren’t just eye candy or excuses for fan service or romance options.

Because this series kind of falls between several genres, I could see this appealing to readers who want to dip their toes into horror but don’t want to jump to Junji Ito, or who like My Hero Academia but want something a little less focused on the relative heroism of everyone’s actions. It’s also great for fans of competition manga or fans of Demon Slayer that want something supernatural but set in the modern world. In other words, really pretty perfect for a collection that has sees high circulation for shonen manga.

Jujutsu Kaisen, Vols. 1-3
By Gege Akutami
ISBN:

VolumeISBN
19781974710027
29781974710034
39781974710041

VIZ, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: T+
Series Reading Order: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jujutsu_Kaisen (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Japanese

Love Me, Love Me Not, Volumes 1 & 2

Yuna and Akari meet by chance on a subway platform. When they discover that they live in the same building and are starting at the same high school, they become fast friends; in spite of their drastically different world views. Akari is very practical and is comfortable with boys—she even has a long-distance boyfriend—while Yuna is a dreamy romantic who looks down at her feet as she speaks to boys. The one exception to Yuna’s discomfort with boys is her neighbor and childhood friend, Kazuomim with whom she feels completely at home. As Yuna daydreams about being swept away by a handsome prince, Akari tries to convince her to view Kazuomi in a romantic light. Complicating matters, Yuna meets Akari’s brother Rio, who looks exactly like the prince in her favorite childhood storybook, and she is instantly enamored of him.

In the first volume, Yuna becomes acquaintances with Rio become, and Yuna sees that many girls at their school have crushes on him. Rio tells Yuna that he can’t return any of their affections, because he is in unrequited love with someone who can never know his true feelings. Gradually, Yuna realizes that Rio is in love with Akari; they are actually step-siblings, and he fell in love with her before their parents got married. In the second volume, Yuna confesses to Rio that she has fallen in love with him, and while he doesn’t feel the same way, he lets her down gently and they remain friends. Meanwhile, Akari and her boyfriend break up, and she throws herself into attempting to set up Kazuomi and Yuna. She spends more time with Kazuomi and starts to develop romantic feelings for him.

The characters are drawn in classic shoujo style: Rio and Kazuomi are tall and thin, with broad shoulders, while Yuna and Akari are shorter, with rounded faces and exaggerated eyes. Yuna’s doll-like, light-colored hair is long with neat bangs, reflecting her childlike personality. Akari’s hair is dark and messy, with choppy layers, implying she is too practical to put much time into her appearance and enhancing her girl-next-door vibe. Rio and Kazuomi have very similar boy band-pretty faces and hairstyles, but with Rio’s light hair and Kazuomi’s dark hair, they are easy to differentiate. Backgrounds are gently rendered with bokeh-style shading.

In true shoujo manga fashion, author notes along the sides of some panels enhance the reading experience. A notably charming one is about how as a child Sakisaka thought the English word for spinach was Popeye and once embarrassed herself by calling it that in front of people. At the start and end of each volume, Sakisaka also shares work-related author notes, such as describing her creative process (analog as opposed to digital) and expressing concern that she doesn’t fully feel like she understands Kazuomi’s personality yet. Love Me, Love Me Not is a solid addition to any manga collection, and would be a fun first foray into shoujo for tweens and younger teens.

Love Me, Love Me Not
By Io Sakisaka
Art by Io Sakisaka
ISBN:

VolumeISBN
1978-1-9747-1309-7
2978-1-9747-1310-3

Viz Media, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Teen
Series Reading Order: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Me,_Love_Me_Not_(manga) (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Japanese