Monster Musume, vols. 1-2

MonsterMusumevol1.jpgDid you know that centaurs, mermaids, and harpies really exist, and they’ve been living in secret in Japan? Monster Musume features a Japanese government that has formally acknowledged the existence of liminal species. To foster goodwill between humans and liminals, Japan launched the Interspecies Cultural Exchange Act, which allows liminals to live with host families and learn about human culture. Monitored by the government, liminals abide by rules that include non-violent interaction with humans and most importantly, absolutely no sex! However, the latter rule proves difficult to follow as Kurusu Kimihito finds himself surrounded by a harem of sexy monster girls.

The first volume of Monster Musume introduces readers to Kimihito, who was accidentally chosen as a host family after a government agent—the loopy Ms. Smith—delivers a lamia named Mia to his house. The snake girl falls head over tail for Kimihito, taking every opportunity to get him hot and bothered by rubbing his face in between her large breasts or coiling him up with her tail, unaware that she is cutting off his air supply. Adding more girls complicates matters, as a good harem story should, because Mia sees the harpy Papi and buxom centaur Centorea as romantic rivals. All three women vie for Kimihito’s affections without much concern for his personal safety. In a final twist, Ms. Smith arrives with news that Kimihito has been chosen for a new pilot program that will allow humans to marry a liminal.

Volume two picks up after this bombshell as the girls use lingerie and sultry moves to seduce Kimihito into marriage. However, this plot is dropped immediately when a slime girl invades the house. Suu, as she is eventually called, lacks a physical form and comes with her own set of challenges. As a slime, she feeds off water, which can change her body type, but she must avoid large volumes of it or… she’ll be killed? Absorbed? Turned into a 50-foot-tall monster? Unfortunately, the book isn’t very clear on this subject. After a few bumps in the road, Suu is welcomed into the family, but not before Ms. Smith arrives to dump another girl into Kimihito’s lap. This time, she’s a mermaid.

Rather than explore the challenges and sociological ramifications of integrating two species, Monster Musume is all about titillation. Okayado has packed both volumes with enough nudity and sexual humor that it barely falls short of hentai. Given its adult content, I’m surprised that publisher Seven Seas gave it an Older Teen (16+) rating. Okayado doesn’t shy away from sex and adult humor and makes use of every situational opportunity to elicit arousal. For example, consider the shedding of Mia’s snake skin: one can almost hear the cheesy saxophone soundtrack as Mia moans, blushes, whimpers, and wiggles while Kimihito removes her dead skin. There’s also a popsicle scene that I won’t describe in great detail, though I will say that it is absurdly shameless. Okayado loves to depict women in wet shirts, which would explain their sudden clumsiness when placed in close proximity to water; never one to let a cheap thrill pass by, you can expect to see a girl in a drenched, tight, and opaque blouse whenever the liquid is present.

Suu’s arrival heralds a higher level of tawdry eroticism. When Papi accidentally spills water on herself—again with the water!—Suu immediately jumps on top of the harpy and proceeds to lick, suck, and tongue the water from the other girl’s skin. Naturally, Mia and Centorea get wet as well and the slime girl goes to town on them both, their apparent orgasms represented by a falling flower petal. Nudity isn’t an afterthought in Monster Musume; it’s a promise. Although this is fine for the mature-looking Mia and Centorea, the youthful appearance of Papi and Suu can be a little risque.

Is Monster Musume worth recommending? The story is unoriginal and the characters have boilerplate personalities, though it has its moments. Ms. Smith provides a number of laughs and the introduction of a mermaid to the group dynamic raises all sorts of questions. I even liked the artwork, ridiculous as the characters’ proportions may be. Monster girls come with their own set of artistic challenges and Okayado shows a deft hand in drawing scenes and action that account for their unique appendages. However, these first two volumes are not without concerns. The writing (or its translation) can be painfully corny and the sudden loss of the marriage plot suggests that the author doesn’t have a solid direction for the series to come. There’s also the question of whether a book that includes so much nudity should be rated for teens. It’s not my place to say what is appropriate for individual readers, but Okayado’s artwork and plot lines are more than a little outrageous. Although there are worse things out there, the sexual content is cause for hesitation.

Given its content, I’d be surprised if Monster Musume could maintain a complaint-free existence in a teen library collection, and it may be best to play it safe and catalog it for adults. Unless patrons are clamoring for sexy monster girl comics, however, there would be no harm in passing on this title.

Monster Musume, vols. 1-2
by Okayado
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781937867904
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781626920033
Seven Seas Entertainment, 2013-2014
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)

Alice in the Country of Hearts: The Mad Hatter’s Late Night Tea Party, Vols. 1-2

84-coverTeenager Alice Liddell is still struggling to adapt to life in the Country of Hearts, a dreamlike but dangerous version of Wonderland. Everyone here is beautiful and they all love Alice; on the other hand, everyone is heavily armed and gunfights break out at the drop of a hat. Besides, Alice isn’t even sure she wants all the attention she gets in Hearts. She’s given up on romance, but Blood DuPre—aka the Hatter, boss of a violent Mafia group—just might change her mind.

Alice in the Country of Hearts is one of several manga series based on relationship-centered Japanese computer games. In the games, players can choose a romantic partner for Alice from Wonderland’s many handsome, if murderous, characters. The manga parallels this premise by offering various series in which Alice gets involved with different characters; predictably, The Mad Hatter’s Late-Night Tea Party sees her entangled with the Hatter.

Alice still believes that her adventures in Hearts are part of an extended dream. That would explain why Blood looks so much like a man from her own world, on whom she had an unrequited crush. The resemblance, however, is only skin-deep, as Blood DuPre is a brooding bad boy. The Hatter’s personality is aloof and cold, except when he’s teasing Alice with scandalous suggestions and touches. She’s unsure how she feels about Blood, but even if she likes him, the callous, sexually experienced Hatter surely isn’t serious about her… is he?

Though Alice is conflicted about her feelings for Blood, she gives in to his advances and they sleep together. Soon thereafter, Alice spots him sharing a tender moment with the Queen of Hearts. Distressed, she decides that she and the Hatter need some time apart, and she leaves his mansion to stay with a friend. Blood comes after her with a gun, wounding Alice’s friend and threatening Alice herself. Clearly, this is not everyone’s idea of a romantic hero.

Violence, murder, and interrogation are par for the course in Hearts, but the visuals are limited to artful blood spatters. Sex is implied and vaguely discussed, but no nudity actually appears; readers may be more concerned about the nature of the sex scenes than anything that is visually depicted. While Alice is attracted to the Hatter, he continually pushes her beyond her comfort zone. When they do have sex, it seems like she is just giving in to his pressure. Alice doesn’t seem unhappy afterward—but then again, she also believes that everything happening is only a dream.

Riko Sakura’s artistic style fits in well with the other illustrators of QuinRose’s Alice manga. The characters are slender and pretty with elaborate outfits, though this series does less with scenery than others, as its backgrounds tend to be minimal. However, since it is focused on the characters’ relationships, it makes sense that people’s expressions and interactions are given the most emphasis.

The personalities of the romantic interests in the Alice manga are varied, which means that different kinds of readers will find them appealing. The Cheshire Cat series, for example, focuses on a lighthearted love story with sweet-but-clueless Boris; the Hatter is a darker Heathcliff type. However, those who enjoy the Country of Hearts and its cast of wacky characters are likely to have fun with all of the series, including this one.

Alice in the Country of Hearts: The Mad Hatter’s Late Night Tea Party, Vols. 1-2
by QuinRose
Art by Riko Sakura
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781937867782
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781626920026
Seven Seas, 2013-2014
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

Love In Hell, Vol. 1

loveinhell_vol1Hell can be many things: a place of endless horrors and punishment, a black abyss devoid of God’s light, or simply other people. The infernal realm has inspired numerous literary works, comics, movies, and video games. An underground realm occupied by a grand hierarchy of demons, ready to inflict unspeakable tortures upon humanity… who wouldn’t want to write about that?

With the exception of a few episodes of Dragonball Z, I haven’t seen Hell depicted in Japanese manga and anime; the underworld is typically referenced more often than it is shown. There are stories with characters that are referred to as “demons,” but more often than not the term is nothing more than an easy label for antagonists. Although Hell is meant to be a place of suffering and pain, Love In Hell—not to be confused with the early work of Matt Groening—is a goofy comedy about one man’s attempt to make the most of eternal damnation.

Rintaro Senkawa isn’t particularly special. A bit of a slacker, Rintaro’s time on Earth is cut short when he falls from a balcony after a night of heavy drinking. Waking up naked in a vast wasteland, Rintaro is greeted by Koyori, a waifish demon who acts as his personal guide through Hell. As Hell’s newest soul, Rintaro will be forced to suffer through all the indignities the underworld has to offer. There is a glimmer of hope: with each punishment a soul endures, they move one step closer to being cleansed of sin and cast out of Hell—but given Rintaro’s aversion to pain, his path to redemption will be easier said than done.

Grim as its setting may be, that doesn’t stop Love In Hell from being goofy and fun—though this fun occurs at Rintaro’s expense, and his suffering is our entertainment. Rintaro is scammed by an elderly con man, stumbles into a sexually compromising position with a transgendered coworker, and is mutilated on numerous occasions. All these troubles work in his favor, however, as the trauma he experiences puts him on the road to leave Hell behind forever. Satan’s realm is modeled after human civilization, in which souls take jobs to earn money for goods, services, and penitence. As expected, the deck is stacked against the damned: basic necessities cost an exorbitant amount of cash, and the fastest way to earn it is through willing submission to a host of eager demons brandishing all sorts of deadly armaments. Amidst the chaos, Rintaro finds a friend in Yukihiko, a deviant whose love for sadomasochism makes him one of the wealthiest souls in Hell and a constant target for his devil mistress.

Love In Hell’s “fish out of water” story is definitely not for young readers due to its violent content and saucy scenes. Most of the sexual content is nothing too traumatic, though the scenes themselves may merit some eye rolling. For instance, when Rintaro first meets Koyori, he is enchanted by her fleshy horns and proceeds to rub them in a sexual way. The violence, on the other hand, can get pretty graphic—after all, this is Hell. In volume one, Rintaro’s head is knocked clean off with a spiked mace, his eyes are gouged out, and he is boiled alive in a hot lava spring. Unfortunately for Rintaro, all wounds inflicted in Hell are instantly healed, allowing souls to endure continual and unending punishment. Yukihiko is first introduced with his skin ripped off, turning him into an unidentifiable walking mass of muscle. When Rintaro is shown to the lava baths, the body of an elderly man melts away in gory chunks. Torn skin and crushed heads are one thing, but the book’s most unsettling scene of violence is inflicted upon a busty girl from Rintaro’s orientation class. When Rintaro attempts to woo her, their behavior warrants discipline and in the next few panels, a demon proudly displays the woman’s breasts in both hands after they’ve been pulled from her body. With the demon laughing at his own antics, we are meant to take it as a gag, but the panel is so unsettling that it may elicit a nervous chuckle at most.

While its violence is often shocking, Love In Hell is ultimately silly. I’m not certain whether the series has staying power since Rintaro can only take so much suffering before the schtick gets old. This volume ends without any compelling hooks or revelations concerning Rintaro’s condemnation to Hell, and with a story set in the most evil place in human imagination, is there any room for antagonists or conflict? Love In Hell has no problem making the most of its setting through sexuality and gory violence, but amusing as these moments can be, the manga runs the risk of wasting its potential without a compelling storyline to underscore its humor.

Love In Hell, Vol. 1
by Reiji Suzumaru
ISBN: 9781937867898
Seven Seas, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar’s Game, vols. 1-4

80-coverFans of QuinRose’s Alice books will be excited to see a whole new world opening up to our heroine. All the characters from Country of Hearts and Country of Clover return in this series, along with new faces, and new dangers.

Teenager Alice Liddell began her adventures in the Country of Hearts, a bizarre and dangerous version of Wonderland. Everybody who’s anybody in Hearts—from the histrionic Queen to the Hatter mafia family—is heavily armed, and they’re all in love with Alice. Several related manga series, all based on Japanese romance computer games, take place in Hearts or the neighboring Country of Clover. Alice finds herself in Clover when Hearts moves, undergoing a disorienting change in landscape. Most of the characters come along for the ride, but a few are left behind in Hearts, replaced by new people in Clover. In this new series, the world has shifted again, introducing something called April Season.

In April Season, all of the people from Hearts and Clover coexist, but at a price. The world is unstable: spring, summer, fall, and winter are happening simultaneously in adjacent areas. In order to travel between them, Alice must visit the Circus, which appeared when April Season began. There, she must play a card game with the enigmatic Joker who can allow her to pass between the seasons. But sometimes when Alice visits Joker, she finds herself wandering in a creepy prison. What is this place and what is its connection to the life Alice left behind when the White Rabbit first brought her to Hearts?

Many of QuinRose’s Alice books focus on one particular romantic relationship, pairing Alice with the Hatter or the anthropomorphic Cheshire Cat, for instance. Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar’s Game is a continuing series, but in these first four volumes, a single romantic attachment hasn’t become clear. Alice seems most attracted to the Hatter, but she feels ambivalent because some of that attraction is based on his resemblance to a former love from her old world. She also entertains some flirtation from the Cheshire Cat and others. Initially determined not to fall in love after her old flame broke her heart, Alice seems to be changing her mind on the subject.

Like the Hearts and Clover books, this series includes a lot of gunfights—usually with no casualties—and a lot of flirtation. While there’s no sex or nudity in these first four volumes (only a couple of kisses), there is a lot of innuendo, and some of Alice’s suitors can be pushy in a way that might make some readers uncomfortable. On the other hand, much of the flirting is funny and occasionally it’s even sweet.

The art features the same pretty elements as the other Alice books: slender, elegant characters in elaborate outfits, plus lots of fun fantasy scenery. Roses, masks, and other dramatic props abound, and even the fight scenes are as artful as dances. However, this series also introduces whimsical new components. In addition to Joker and his Circus, April Season brings various holiday festivals that haven’t appeared in the Alice series before: Halloween! Valentine’s Day! A snow festival!

Fans of Hearts and Clover will enjoy this weird, madcap mish-mash of the two worlds. And it’s not all fluff: the dark undercurrent of Joker’s prison and Alice’s repressed memories add tension to the story. Circus and Liar’s Game adds depth and new amusements to QuinRose’s Wonderland.

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar’s Game, vols. 1-4
by QuinRose
Art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781937867157
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781937867256
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781937867683
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781626920019
Seven Seas, 2013-2014
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

The Clockwork Sky, vol. 1

clockworkskyIn 1895, twelve-year-old Sally is shunted off to her brooding inventor uncle, Erasmus Croach. Escaping his mansion becomes the spunky girl’s top priority and, luckily for Sally, no locks can restrain her for long. Her freedom could give her the chance to discover the shadow behind her uncle’s success, but will she live long enough to learn the truth? Meanwhile, police robot Sky begins to suspect that his creator Erasmus isn’t telling the truth about how London’s robot factory operates. When Sally and Sky team up, they’ll learn the shocking reality that will rock Victorian England to its bones.

Both Sky and Sally are very much children. Sky is newly made and engineered to look like a young boy and, though he does the work of an adult, Sally often seems more mature than he is. Where he is cautious she is adventurous, but both are guided by an absolute sense of right and wrong. Neither they nor anybody else seem to like Erasmus. The two main characters dovetail nicely, though they also work well on their own. Secondary characters, like Sky’s police chief, Sally’s governess, and even Erasmus, are basically stock characters, but the story isn’t very complex, so it’s rarely a problem.

Running class commentary gives this volume a solid subtext. Between the missing working-class children and the numerous ways in which class is used against Sally, there’s no question that this book will appeal to youngsters with a socially conscious bent. This take on steampunk is also fairly unusual, utilizing the Victorian cogs-and-gears aesthetic in such a way as to highlight the negative consequences of hypothetically rapid technological development in the 19th century. Human rights is also featured as a socially conscious theme: just as steambots aren’t expected to have any feelings or thoughts of their own, Sally isn’t expected to react badly to being chained up. The repression of London’s lower classes is based on the outright slavery of obviously sentient robots and the system carries on because robots are more docile and attractive than their human counterparts. It’s a well-constructed broken system with multiple facets that manage to make you think despite the comparative simplicity of their presentation. Some of these themes, which help make The Clockwork Sky a good story, will be lost on younger readers, but teenagers will get the message.

Though Madeleine Rosca’s human figures are strong, some panels—particularly those covering the velocipede race—could have used more visual exploration of the machines. However the action feels urgent, the villain feels appropriately menacing, and The Clockwork Sky is a quick, enjoyable read overall. Large panels drawn from unusual angles help to give London, the robot factory, the velocipede race, and other settings a sense of scope and depth that support the magnitude of Erasmus’ power.

This particular story is reminiscent of Girl Genius in its characterizations, but moves along much faster and feels lighter despite the heavy themes it explores. Steampunk fans will likely enjoy this interesting piece and look forward to reading the rest of the story.

The Clockwork Sky, vol. 1
by Madeleine Rosca
ISBN: 9780765329165
Seven Seas, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: (T)

Mayo Chiki! vol. 1

Mayo Chiki! Volume 1Sakamachi Kinjiro, aka Jiro, is a boy with problems. First he walks in on Konoe Subaru, the coolest boy in school, in the bathroom. As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, in doing so he discovers that Konoe is a pervert who wears girls’ underwear. Now an angry Konoe wants to beat Jiro to a bloody pulp. This brings us to another one of Jiro’s problems: he’s used to being beaten. His mother is a famous wrestler, his younger sister is just like her, and they regularly test their new moves on poor Jiro. These unfortunate circumstances have caused yet another problem: whenever a girl touches Jiro, his nose starts to bleed—not because he’s turned on, but because his subconscious mind has learned that if he starts bleeding, the beating will stop. So imagine his surprise when he realizes in the midst of Konoe’s attack that the coolest boy in school is actually a girl!

Konoe is butler to Suzutsuki Kanade, the daughter of a rich and powerful family. As a butler, she is forced to hide her gender. Now that Jiro has discovered her secret, Konoe is determined to beat it out of his consciousness. But before she can succeed, her mistress steps in. When Suzutsuki learns of Jiro’s fear of women, she strikes a deal with him. She and Konoe will help cure him of his fear if he will keep quiet about Konoe’s true gender. The trouble is that Suzutsuki is a sadist, so her “cure” is often worse than his phobia.

At first glance, Mayo Chiki! lacks complexity. The first volume is a string of awkward moments for Jiro, most of which occur because Suzutsuki’s idea of curing him involves causing Jiro as much discomfort as possible for her own pleasure. As the story progresses, however, one realizes that this is not entirely the case. Because Konoe is a butler and must disguise herself as a boy, many aspects of her life have been left undeveloped. Though Suzutsuki’s methods may place Jiro in countless tricky situations—which she does enjoy, sadist that she is—at heart, it is all in the best interest of her beloved butler. Konoe, too, has unexpected depth. Since she is forced to live as a boy in order to perform her duties, one might expect her whole personality would be geared towards the tough and masculine. Surprisingly, in her personal moments she is feminine and even vulnerable, and it is these unaddressed parts of her for which Suzutsuki is concerned. Finally, Jiro proves to be more than a wimpy kid who is battered by his family; although he may be physically weak, his strong heart is revealed in dangerous situations.

Mayo Chiki! contains a good deal of provocative near-nudity. There is also a scene in which Suzutsuki has Konoe chained to a bed and muzzled with a ring gag. Though her actions are intended to prevent Konoe from attacking Jiro, she does so with a decidedly S&M flair. For this reason, Mayo Chiki! is recommended for older teens and adults.

Mayo Chiki! vol. 1
by Hajime Asano
Art by Neet
ISBN: 9781937867058
Seven Seas Entertainment, LLC, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

Alice in the Country of Hearts: The Clockmaker’s Story

76-coverTeenager Alice Liddell is stuck in the Country of Hearts, a version of Wonderland that features a dizzying mix of amorous suitors and out-of-the-blue gunfights. This manga is one of more than a dozen based on a series of romance-centered Japanese computer games in which players take on the role of Alice and choose which Wonderland characters she will date. The manga, created by QuinRose and Mamenosuke Fujimaru, reflects these origins by offering readers an array of series and one-volume works that pair Alice with different Wonderland characters.

In The Clockmaker’s Story, Alice discovers the quiet charm of hardworking clockmaker Julius. Unlike most of the series’ characters, Julius is not easily identified as a character from the original Alice in Wonderland story. He’s the calmest and least violent of the people Alice meets in Hearts, but he’s also standoffish and very serious. As Alice discovers, he has good reason to be. The clocks Julius repairs have a significance beyond what Alice knows—one that has other Hearts inhabitants warning her to stay away from him. But as her heart gets involved, staying away from Julius starts to seem impossible.

This volume stands alone, an alternative to the events of the original Alice in the Country of Hearts series. Alice and Julius’s story only occupies two-thirds of the book while the rest consists of previews. There is an extended preview of the manga Crimson Empire: Circumstances to Serve a Noble, which is about a maid who is trained in battle and serves as bodyguard to a prince; and a much shorter preview of the manga Kanokon, which is about a kitsune girl. Crimson Empire is another manga written by QuinRose that is based on a relationship-centered role-playing game, and it will likely interest some fans of Alice and her romantic adventures.

The main story includes a lot of innuendo and one highly-discreet sex scene with no visible nudity. With a whole relationship to develop in such a short space, there’s less time for the violence we often see in the Country of Hearts. A lot of characters wave guns around, but the only time we see blood is a bullet grazing that looks suspiciously like an excuse for a Tender Wound-Bandaging Scene. There’s a bit more violence and a lot of implied sex in the Crimson Empire preview chapters, and none of either in the Kanokon pages.

The art is par for the course for an Alice series manga: it’s elegant and pretty with a rich variety of screentones. There’s much more focus on the characters than the scenery, but we do catch glimpses of the whimsical amusement park Heart Castle, and more.

Julius is an unusual romantic interest for the Hearts world. He’s much closer to sane and normal than the murderous Hatter, the fanciful Cheshire Cat, the love-drunk White Rabbit, or any of the other denizens of Hearts. He’s also the only one who is so reserved that Alice ends up pursuing him sometimes; many of the other characters, in this volume as well as in their own stories, push and tease Alice to the point of unnerving her. These differences may help The Clockmaker’s Story to appeal to readers who find other books in the series to be a little over the top, or those who prefer a different relationship dynamic.

Multiple previews of other manga make this volume seem scattered. Still, fans of the whimsical Country of Hearts will welcome another of Alice’s adventures there.

Alice in the Country of Hearts: The Clockmaker’s Story
by QuinRose
Art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru
ISBN: 9781937867645
Seven Seas, 2010
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

Alice in the Country of Clover: Cheshire Cat Waltz, vols. 1-7

75-coverThings were strange enough when Alice Liddell found herself stuck in the Country of Hearts, a fanciful but violent version of Wonderland where everyone is heavily armed and obsessed with her. Just when she has settled in and begun to learn the rules of Hearts, she isn’t in Hearts anymore! Without warning, the world has shifted, dumping many of its inhabitants, and even some of its buildings, into the parallel Country of Clover. Alice’s friends assure her that this happens from time to time, but she is still confused and distressed. She has to find a new place to live, and she misses the friends who were left behind in Hearts. At least Boris, the Cheshire Cat, made the move to Clover. That’s a relief, as he’s a good friend—or maybe more than a friend.

(Here I should probably clarify that Boris is a human with cat ears and a tail, not an actual cat.)

Alice in the Country of Clover, Alice in the Country of Hearts, and Alice in the Country of Joker are based on Japanese computer games in which players acting as Alice can pursue romance with the Wonderland character of their choice. This makes for a plethora of manga series, each focusing on Alice’s relationship with different characters, including Elliott, the March Hare; the Bloody Twins, Tweedledee and Tweedledum; the Mad Hatter, and more. Complete at seven volumes, Cheshire Cat Waltz is the longest of these series so far.

Perhaps because of its length, Cheshire Cat Waltz covers its central relationship in much more depth and detail than others, such as the one-volume Bloody Twins installment. Alice and Boris like each other, but Alice is reserved and uncertain, unnerved by Boris’ enthusiastic advances. Eventually both admit their feelings and they make it boyfriend-and-girlfriend official. Their relationship progresses physically, too, from kisses to sleeping next to each other to sex. While lust and innuendo abound, the real focus is on their developing relationship. The big question for much of the series is not whether the two will have sex—which happens about halfway through—but whether they will move in together.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Wonderland without a cast of kooky side characters, and it wouldn’t be Hearts or Clover without deadly plots, frequent shoot-outs, and dangerous rivalries. Wonderland is divided between “role holders,” named characters like Boris and the Mad Hatter, and “faceless” servants, soldiers, and townspeople, who are depicted without eyes and are considered interchangeable and replaceable. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of faceless collateral damage when role holders clash. In Cheshire Cat Waltz, this social system comes to the forefront more than once. Alice takes a job in a café run by faceless townspeople who are surprised to find that she can tell the faceless apart, as none of the role holders can. Later, sick of being second-class citizens, a network of faceless plans attacks on role holders, and more violence ensues.

The violence is frequent, but not gory. In addition to fighting, there are a few scenes that imply torture of faceless agents. Role holders regularly pop up smeared or spattered with blood—totally unconcerned about it—but it’s rare for established characters to be really hurt.

Despite the frequent innuendo and the number of scenes that take place in bed, the series goes out of its way to avoid showing nudity. Even when bathing, female characters appear to be wrapped in towels. The one actual sex scene shows almost nothing below the shoulders, focusing on dialog and facial expressions. Alice has a tendency to get tearful and seem uncomfortable during sexy scenes, which may bother some readers. Overall, though, she seems happy with her physical and emotional relationship with Boris.

Each volume contains a part of the main story, plus one or more short stories set in Hearts or Clover. Some of these continue from one volume to the next like the main plot. Each also contains a several-page preview of another manga series at the end.

These books are whimsical and fun. Fans of any of the other Hearts, Clover, or Joker books will likely enjoy Cheshire Cat Waltz. As romantic stories go, this one has an unusually high bullets-to-kisses ratio, but shojo readers who don’t mind some non-relationship action may also enjoy the series.

Alice in the Country of Clover: Cheshire Cat Waltz, vols. 1-7
by QuinRose
Art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781935934912
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781935934929
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781935934936
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781937867102
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781937867331
Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781937867669
Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781937867744
Seven Seas, 2012-2013
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

Guilty Crown: Complete Series

GuiltyCrownCoverOn December 25th, 2029, the Apocalypse Virus was unleashed on Japan, killing many of its citizens on a day known as “The Lost Christmas.” It was stopped by the organization GHQ at the cost of Japan’s independence. Ten years later, Shu Ouma bumps into the internet singing sensation, Inori Yuzuriha, on the way home from school. He discovers that she is part of Funeral Parlor, the terrorist organization that is trying to liberate Japan. Inori asks Shu to safeguard a vial she’s stolen from GHQ. Of course, it shatters, infecting him with the Void Genome, a genetic weapon that allows him to use “Voids,” weapons made from a person’s psyche. Shu is forced to join Funeral Parlor, and from that point on, things grow steadily worse—both on a personal level for the series’ characters and from an international standpoint in a world that is worried about another outbreak of disease and terrorism. Though I have barely scratched the surface of the series’ plot, it is so complex and tangled that I would have no room for the rest of the review if I were to discuss it in its entirety.

This anime is unarguably gorgeous and its art is seriously stunning. The Voids and the Apocalypse Virus look otherworldly, but not jarringly so. The locations and backgrounds are lovingly detailed and look almost like real places, while major characters are given several fashionable outfits. Guilty Crown is a visual smorgasbord, and the music in the anime is also first rate. It’s clear, crisp, and sets the scene well. It helps that the writer and the character designer are both members of the band Supercell, whose music is featured in the anime. The dubbing is well done, though nothing particularly special.

Guilty Crown is rated TV-14, which is about right, if a bit on the low side. It features some uncomfortable subjects, such as terrorism, genocide, and an extremely harsh and unfair class system. There’s violence, but most of it isn’t terribly graphic. The most likely reason for the show’s TV-14 rating is the fact that minors are shown having sex—even trading sex for favors—in a non-explicit fashion, and an incestuous relationship is a major plot point of the series. For these reasons, this anime should be kept away from young children.

I really did not like this anime. It’s not just that it’s trying to rip off Code Geass and Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s not just that it has a large number of gigantic plot holes; the characters are generally unlikely, either bland and whiny, or over-the-top evil, and a lot of the side characters and subplots ultimately become loose ends. It’s because Guilty Crown is a convoluted mess that doesn’t have the faintest idea what it wants to be.

The plot summary I provided does not begin to cover the twists and turns that unfold throughout the series, which runs on Wham Episodes. If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to an episode that comes out of nowhere and completely changes the course of the series, usually used at the middle or end of a season (e.g., the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones). To compare: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that ran for seven seasons, has roughly nine Wham Episodes. Guilty Crown, a 22-episode anime, has 13—thirteen crazy, shocking swerves that totally change the direction of the series. More than half the episodes nullify all those that came before them, making it impossible to connect to anything that’s going on or feel any sense of suspense.

A series doesn’t work when you know that nothing you’re watching matters because it’s all going to change again in an episode or two. For this reason, as well as the many other faults I listed above, I give Guilty Crown two thumbs down. However, this is a very divisive anime and there are people who love it as much as I loathe it—so if you want to give it a try, go ahead. If nothing else, at least it’s pretty.

Guilty Crown: Complete Series
Funimation, 2013
directed by Tetsuro Araki
250 minutes, Number of Discs: 8, DVD/Blu-Ray Combo Set
Company Age Rating: TV-14

Haganai: I Don’t Have Many Friends, vol. 1

Haganai: I Don't Have Many Friends, Volume 1Hasegawa Kodaka is a high school transfer student who has trouble making friends. As does his weird classmate Mikazuki Yozora, whom Kodaka discovers in lively conversation with her “air friend” (it’s like an air guitar, only a friend). Kodaka and Yozora discuss their friendless situations and contemplate how they might make friends, if only they were any good at it. The following day, Kodaka is surprised when Yozora presents him with a complete and school-approved application for a new club, of which he is now a member. Called the Neighbors Club, it is meant to attract other friendless students so they can all learn the art of friendship.

In pursuit of this goal, the Neighbors Club members create activities they believe will assist them in attracting friends or learning normal social behavior. However, there are reasons the members do not have friends, made hilariously clear by their awkward failures at these simple activities. The characters introduced in this volume are typical: the sullen loner, the transfer student, the over-achiever, and the feminine male underclassman. In giving these stock characters the inability to make friends, and putting them together with the sole purpose of accomplishing this impossible task, Hirasaka creates an intriguing plot that will fuel the reader’s interest in subsequent volumes.

The artwork in Haganai is polished and will appeal to a wide range of readers. The characters are represented consistently throughout the manga and the action sequences are easy to follow. The creators cover a significant amount of content as well; the reader is given a satisfying amount of story, but is not rushed through individual events in order to make all the content fit. In this volume, the reader becomes acquainted with the entire Neighbors Club as they engage in one of their odd club activities. The action then revisits the origins of the club and begins a day-by-day introduction of the earliest members and their first interactions with one another. The introduction of each character is well-paced, and the creators develop the reader’s understanding of the characters through actions and dialogue, rather than awkward monologues.

The final makeup of the cast of characters— five girls, one guy, and that feminine underclassman who might be a girl— has the elements of a typical harem manga wherein all the girls vie for the attention of the lone male character. However, such a situation does not begin in this volume, and for a manga with an age rating of 16+, it is surprisingly low on fanservice and bad language. The seeds for more mature content are present, though, so this volume is better suited to mature teens and adults.

Haganai: I Don’t Have Many Friends, vol. 1
by Yomi Hirasaka
Art by Itachi
ISBN: 9781937867126
Seven Seas Entertainment, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)