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Off the Shelf: Home again

MICHELLE: Man, is it just me or does it feel like forever since we’ve done one of these? It always feels so… restful to return to our normal format!

MELINDA: It *does* feel like forever. It’s like coming home after an awesome but exhausting vacation.

MICHELLE: Let’s never stray again! Please put me further at ease by proceeding to describe what you’ve read this week!

MELINDA: Okay! First of all, I took a look at volume three of Shunju Aono’s I’ll Give It My All… Tomorrow from Viz’s SigIKKI imprint. I’ve reviewed both of the first two volumes of this series, the first for, and the second here on Off the Shelf, and my concern all along has been that not enough changes from volume to volume for the premise to sustain itself. I feared that I’d eventually tire of it, the way I have other ongoing comedy manga like Detroit Metal City. It’s the type of story that typically relies on the protagonist never actually getting anywhere, for if he does, the premise falls completely apart.

Imagine my surprise, when in volume three stuff actually happens. Seriously. Stuff happens. And not just any stuff, mind you, but exactly the stuff you think the author will never allow, by which I mean to say that the series’ hopeless schlub, Shizuo, actually gets ahead a little. It’s very well done, still funny, and actually kind of inspiring, which is not something I’d expected of a melancholy comedy like this one.

Some of the volume’s strongest scenes depict Shizuo’s dreaming dialogue with himself as he struggles with whether or not he should give up on his quest to be a published mangaka or resign himself to resuming his old, miserable life as a salaryman. These scenes are stark and rather touching, though there’s a real poignance to this entire volume that feels warmer towards its protagonist than it ever has before. A scene in which Shizuo determinedly takes on a temporary gig as another artist’s assistant especially springs to mind. It’s as though the author is leading us along the same path as Shizuo, and just as he’s beginning to believe that he can do something real, suddenly we can too. It’s really so well done.

Not that Shizuo’s troubles are over by any means, and his luck takes a less fortunate turn near the end. Still, it’s wonderful to see some actual forward motion in a series of this kind.

This is a terrific volume, and it’s finally got me really hooked on the series.

MICHELLE: I have never really been tempted to read this series before now, because I was sure it would be unrelentingly depressing and that I just wouldn’t find any of it funny. But stories in which a slacker and/or delinquent finds something to excel at and be passionate about are among my very favorites, so to hear that Shizuo actually gets a break piques my interest a little. I’m still not sure about it, but I’m at least more open to the idea of reading it than I was before

MELINDA: I thought this might get you at least a bit interested. I don’t know where the story’s ultimately going, but this really was a satisfying installment.

MICHELLE: I might wait until volume four, but if it continues to actually let Shizuo have some success, then I just might have to check it out.

MELINDA: So, what have you brought for our first night home? :)

MICHELLE: Both of my choices tonight are from VIZ, one each from the Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat imprints. From the former, I read the first two volumes of Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan by Hiroshi Shiibashi. It’s the story of Rikuo Nura, who is 3/4 human and 1/4 yokai and is set to inherit leadership of the yokai clan his grandfather rules. Rikuo’s not thrilled by this, but neither are the yokai, who regard him as a weak human unfit to lead them.

The series gets off to an inauspicious start. Rikuo is targeted by another yokai who thinks he should’ve been the heir, and as a result, some of Rikuo’s classmates are in danger. This spurs Rikuo to transform into a far more competent yokai version of himself, who commands respect, rescues his classmates, and proclaims that he will claim the leadership role. The problem is that the story resets in chapter two and Rikuo, reverted to human form, has no memory of any of this. Random episodic chapters ensue in which Rikuo and some friends—who have, led by one particularly fervent kid, formed a paranormal research society—investigate things like abandoned buildings on campus and creepy dolls. Their activities cause them to fall prey to another scheming yokai, however, who lures them to a yokai-infested mountain. As volume two ends, Rikuo has transformed again and is about to deal with his enemy.

I’m honestly not sure yet what to think about Nura. It definitely has some things going for it. I’m pretty fond of the cast of supporting characters, especially the quirky servants who are closest to Rikuo. While some of these characters look like attractive humans, there’s quite a bit of diversity in character design among them. The idea that, under Rikuo’s leadership, the yokai clan might be rehabilitated into actually helping humans also has merit. The problem, though, is that Rikuo is completely overshadowed. Pretty much, he’s just a dull little kid whom readers endure for the promise of his cooler self showing up. Also, while Shiibashi does introduce a reasonably strong female character in the form of Yura, an onmyoji exorcist who has a family legacy of her own to live up to, within a few chapters she’s rendered helpless and in need of rescue.

Ultimately, Nura has enough potential that I’ll keep reading it, but it hasn’t quite won me over yet.

MELINDA: Bland protagonists can be the kiss of death for me, especially when it comes to shounen manga, but I do like the sound of the supporting cast. There are quite a few yokai-themed series out there these days, though. Do you think this holds up against the competition?

MICHELLE: It’s certainly not going to be as poignant as something like Natsume’s Book of Friends or anything, but the yokai in Nura are more developed than your average supernatural creature that exists only as hero-fodder. More than anything, these yokai remind me of the dokebi in the lovely manhwa Dokebi Bride, in which the supernatural creatures function as sympathetic helpers to our protagonist. Some of the yokai in this series aren’t so nice, but those who reside in the main house seem to have genuine affection for Rikuo and also get some of the best comedic lines.

MELINDA: That does sound a bit promising.

MICHELLE: Hai hai! So, what else have you got this balmy eve? (Is it balmy there? It’s balmy here.)

MELINDA: New England is rarely balmy in May, though the weather has been good for hiking. My heart is plenty balmy, though, after checking in with a long-running favorite, Park SoHee’s Goong. This is the eleventh of Yen Press’ volumes, though with the new omnibus format, I’ve lost track of where we’d be in the Korean releases.

This series is a soap-opera in all the best ways, and there is some pretty gratifying romantic action in this volume at long last. It’s been painful to watch the series’ main couple get in their own way, time and time again, and it’s nice to finally see them both grow up a bit, especially emotionally-impaired Shin. Things fall apart nearly as quickly as they come together, of course, but there’s a sense that real progress has finally been made.

Releasing these in double-length volumes is the best thing Yen Press could have done for this series, in my view. With so much more story included in each new volume, it’s easier to remember what’s happened from one volume to the next, since they each leave a much stronger impression. As a result, these volumes are smooth, smooth reading–a big plus in any romantic story, and especially with a romance as slowly-developed as Goong‘s. Though I’m still anxious for the next volume to come my way, there is enough here to keep me satisfied regardless of the wait.

Park’s artwork really shines here, keeping the relationships nuanced despite the sudsy plot, and her costuming just gets prettier and prettier with each passing volume. She obviously loves all of these characters, even the ones she’s written as semi-villians, and this is most apparent in her very expressive artwork.

Now if she’d only ax Eunuch Kong. *sigh*

MICHELLE: It might say somewhere in the fine print, but I am pretty sure that volume eleven of the Yen Press editions corresponds to volumes thirteen and fourteen of the original.

I am really eager to plunge back into Goong. Somehow, I still haven’t read past volume six! On the plus side, this means I have the ingredients for an awesome binge before me. I really must wholeheartedly endorse these omnibus releases.

I am, however, sorry to hear Eunuch Kong still exists. It seems like he’s the negative refrain anytime anyone mentions this series. Perhaps he’s funny if you’re Korean?

MELINDA: Maybe? Park seems to think he’s hilarious. Sadly, my thoughts of him are invariably violent.

You really do need to start a Goong binge. It’s just so enjoyable, even at its most painful.

MICHELLE: I think every time Eunuch Kong irritates me, I’ll just imagine you slapping him upside the head. That ought to help.

MELINDA: So tell me about that Shojo Beat title you mentioned!

MICHELLE: My second read was the third volume of the ever-charming The Story of Saiunkoku. Technically, this would probably be classified under the genre of historical fantasy, but really, it reads somewhat like a slice-of-life tale. Shurei Hong, once consort and tutor to the emperor, Ryuki, has returned home after successfully inspiring him to govern properly. Most of the money she earned for doing so has already been spent, however, and the upcoming summer storms will necessitate more repairs to the family home. The family’s financial situation inspires their servant, Seiran, to accept a job dealing with bandits and when Shurei is herself offered the chance to help out in the understaffed Ministry of the Treasury, she accepts.

The catch is that women aren’t allowed to hold government posts, so Shurei must disguise herself as a boy. Other shoujo series would focus on the act of disguise itself, and the plot would revolve around the heroine’s attempts to keep her gender under wraps. Not so with Saiunkoku! Instead, the emphasis is on what the experience means to Shurei—though it’s certainly rewarding to prove herself capable of handling the demanding work, it’s painful that it’s a job she’d never be permitted to perform under her own name, since girls are prohibited from taking the civil servant exam.

I must add that it’s refreshing to have a genuinely brilliant heroine. Not only does Shurei perform her work admirably and continue her studies in the evening, but she also demonstrates good basic common sense. Perhaps to some this would suggest that she’s dull, but she’s really anything but. I appreciated too that Seiran, heretofore a mostly quiet and handsome fixture, shows a more snarky and manipulative side.

There’s may no real plot here yet, but with a story like this, it’s all about living with the characters in their world, and that is a very enjoyable prospect indeed.

MELINDA: This: “Instead, the emphasis is on what the experience means to Shurei…” THIS. THIS. THIS. I love this about The Story of Saiunkoku. I love Shurei’s smarts and her dedication to civil service, despite the fact that she’s held back by the gender norms of her time. I haven’t read volume three yet, but now I’m so anxious to pull it off the shelf!

MICHELLE: There’s a really beautiful scene where she says, “What was once just a whimsical daydream brushed so close to my reality that I began to hope my hands might just reach it.” Up until now, she’s been able to set reality aside and pursue learning for its own sake, but the disparity between the life she might have had and the expectations for her as a girl—even a kindly woman’s remark about finding a good man is a harsh reminder of what she can hope for—has really been brought home. This is truly a special series.

MELINDA: Oh, wow. I’m feeling a little teary and I haven’t even read it!

MICHELLE: Go read it now!

MELINDA: Well, okay!

Um. Bye.

MICHELLE: Bye! Everyone else, learn from her example!

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  1. Nice to see you back to business-as-usual!

    I can’t wait to get my hands on Saiunkoku 3. Unfortunately it’s lost somewhere in delayed shipping hell along with several other books.

  2. I loved volume one of Saiunkoku volume two bored me and I coludnt get through the first chapter of volume three it’s just too “talky” for my taste.

    • There *is* a ton of talking going on, it’s true. There’s more dialogue on one page of Saiunkoku that you’d find on, like, 10 pages of some shounen series.

    • Now that’s interesting to read, because I really appreciate the elaborate language, the fact that they let Ryuki use the royal we, the metaphor use and so on – makes the setting more real to me.

  3. David Welsh says:

    Oh, Story of Saiunkoku… I love that series so much. I wish someone would license the light novels for publication, because I’d love to read the original.

  4. There’s a really beautiful scene where she says, “What was once just a whimsical daydream brushed so close to my reality that I began to hope my hands might just reach it.” Up until now, she’s been able to set reality aside and pursue learning for its own sake, but the disparity between the life she might have had and the expectations for her as a girl—even a kindly woman’s remark about finding a good man is a harsh reminder of what she can hope for—has really been brought home.

    Oh SOOOOOOO this. I loved that they basically opened the book with that kind old woman asking Shurei when she would marry and right away we got all those thoughts and ruminations happening. I also like that Ryuki is not a competent Emperor right away, but makes timing mistakes that endanger the progress he has been working for. Raised the stakes quite a bit.


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