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Off the Shelf: Teahouse, Love Spell, Barrage

MELINDA: Good morning, Michelle! We’ve both been so busy, it feels like we haven’t talked in weeks. Good thing it’s time for Off the Shelf!

MICHELLE: It literally *has* been weeks since we’ve had one of these, what with our recent time off. I just can’t read as much as I’d like these days.

MELINDA: It’s a busy time, for sure. So, with your limited time, what have you been digging into this week?

teahouseMICHELLE: Well, I managed to finally get around to reading the first volume of Ameiro Kochakan Kandan, which JManga released back in January. The title translates to Chatting at the Amber Teahouse, and in fact that’s the title used all over JManga’s edition. Why they didn’t just call it that (instead of using the Japanese title, which I have great difficulty remembering), I do not know. Anyway, I found this slice-of-life yuri story from Miyabi Fujieda to be pretty charming! Oh, it’s decidedly uncomplicated, but that doesn’t keep one from enjoying the chaste (so far) love story.

Tucked away in a peaceful neighborhood is a little shop called The Amber Teahouse. Its proprietor, Seriho, is a tea enthusiast who opened the shop with lottery winnings. She’s not exactly scatterbrained, but she could use some looking after. Enter her one employee, responsible high school student Sarasa, who loves the teahouse (and Seriho) so much that she decides to go to school to become a pastry chef rather than attend some prestigious university. There’s a nice metaphor early on that likens their relationship to a “pot-san,” who made tea that no one came to drink, and the “cosy-san” who arrived and kept the pot warm ’til customers finally came around. Only by the end of the volume are there inklings of a possible romantic relationship between them; so far it’s mostly “stay with me for the next 50 years and then some” and lines like that.

Probably I have actually made this sound a little more plot-centric than it actually is. Many of the chapters are quite short, and some can be summed up like, “Sarasa and Seriho ponder adding sweets to the menu.” The art style is quite simplistic, with a few stock character designs that remind me a little of K-ON! and its ilk. Certainly this series isn’t likely to win any awards for profundity, but I liked it and found it much more my speed than Hanjuku Joshi, which we talked about a couple weeks ago.

MELINDA: I have to say that the teahouse setting sounds very appealing to me. I love stories set in the workplace, and this kind of workplace in particular really does the trick. Ever since Antique Bakery, I guess… in any case, it sounds quite charming. I’ll admit that I’m not incredibly fond of the type of artwork you describe, but it’s popular these days, so what can you do?

MICHELLE: It didn’t bother me much in the main story itself. It’s a bit worse, and some of the side characters more outrageous, in the prequel stories at the end of the volume, but since those were written first, I tried not to let them diminish my opinion of the main series.

Anyways! What have you been reading this week?

demon2MELINDA: Well, I began my week with volume two of Demon Love Spell, the latest from Mayu Shinjo. Though I haven’t always been a fan of her work, the first volume of this series charmed me pretty thoroughly, so I was definitely looking forward to digging in further.

For those just joining in, Demon Love Spell is the story of a shrine maiden named Miko, who (through a series of wacky events) has become attached to an incubus named Kagura, without whom she’s unable to see spirits. Though Kagura is an incredibly powerful demon, he spends most of his waking hours in cute, hamster-sized form, only receiving the physical love he requires to maintain his power by entering Miko’s nighttime dreams, during which she’s able to leave behind her daytime inhibitions. It’s a premise that should be creepy as all hell, but somehow manages to be palatable, mainly thanks to the fact that most of the real power in the relationship has been granted to Miko.

Volume two starts off pretty irresistibly, by introducing an adorable fox (I mean adorable) who has fallen in love with a human girl. He wants to be with her so much that he gives up all of the usual fox behavior in order to for her to be happy. Though he’s not quite able to attain full human form—he’s still got his fox ears—he resolves to try to be with the girl. For reasons I won’t mention here (spoilers!), this is impossible. Furthermore, he’s mistaken our heroine, Miko, for the young priestess he fell in love with, leading to lots of confusion on her part and some pretty intense jealousy from Kagura. The fox story is sweet and tragic and just the kind of thing guaranteed to tug my heartstrings, but the story’s real focus is on Kagura, and his slow realization that Miko’s love is more important to him and better able to sustain him than their sexual activity.

The concept is kind of trite, but the execution really works, and even the volume’s second story arc—involving Kagura’s relentless pursuit of a promised “lovey-dovey day”—is able to continue along these lines without becoming tiresome or creepy. I have to say, it’s kind of a strange treat to be able to read some seriously trashy shoujo that doesn’t make my skin crawl. And even when it possibly should, Shinjo’s artwork is so adorable and her humor so charming, she’s able to keep things just light and airy enough to avoid giving offense.

MICHELLE: That is an adorable fox! Especially the one semi-flattened ear.

This does sound fairly promising for a Mayu Shinjo title, but the question I’m left with is… does Kagura’s realization regarding love in any way dissuade him from sexing up Miko during her dreams? It’s not that she isn’t a fully willing participant, but not remembering it was seriously troubling her in the first volume, if I recall rightly.

MELINDA: Actually, it does. It’s interesting how Shinjo manages to pull it all off, too. Since Kagura’s an incubus, his character would fall apart were he to become any less, er, sexually driven. But she’s managed to awaken Kagura to some ideas about love and respect that don’t feel incongruous with his need for female attention. She’s just shifted things slightly towards emotional gratification rather than only physical gratification, and it somehow works. Also, I’m impressed by her ability to make the fox-ears bit genuinely funny. I feel like my dislike for Ai Ore! has caused me to deny her the credit she’s due as a romantic comedy writer. It’s nice to be proven wrong.

So, we have a mutual read to share this week as well. Wanna hit us with an introduction?

barrage1MICHELLE: Sure!

Barrage is a quite recent Shonen Jump series that is making its English-language debut next Tuesday. This two-volume series is the story of “spunky slum kid” Astro who ends up taking the place of spoiled Prince Barrage, who flees his duty to protect Planet Industria from hordes of invading aliens and is promptly dispatched by an assassin. Astro’s primary motivation in accepting the dangerous task is to provide a home for the gaggle of abandoned kids that he’s been caring for, but when he ventures out of the relatively peaceful capital and discovers that losing one’s family is routine for people in more war-torn parts of the planet, he realizes that it’s up to him to protect them. (I should mention here that Astro can wield a special royal weapon, the orgue, and that he’s being accompanied on his journey by Tiamat, a military officer who’ll teach him how to fight.)

All of this may sound rather generic, but there are some things about the story that set it apart. For one thing, Astro spends hardly any time pretending to be Barrage, and comes clean to the king almost immediately. For another, though he is brave and has this swanky weapon, he’s still just a kid who needs instruction. There were several spots in the story that made me giggle and only a couple that made me snerk. Despite its teen rating (probably due to the violence), this reads like a kid-centric tale, and so you get bad guys making proclamations like, “I am an elite spy from Planet Assassinia!” How stealthy!

MELINDA: It is generic, certainly, but I think what makes that okay is that it doesn’t try to pretend it’s not. Instead of trying to make all of its well-worn plot points seem like something new, author Kouhei Horikoshi really embraces the story’s comfy familiarity and just works to make that as much fun as possible. I may never get the sense that Astro is in real danger and it’s difficult to imagine that anything truly surprising will ever happen (though, as you say, having Astro come clean so early on was a nice touch), but the truth is, I’m having too good a time to care.

Despite the fact that he’s saddled with some pretty heavy-handed messages about responsibility and family, Astro is a genuinely lovable hero, who manages to be headstrong and impulsive without the strong resistance to authority or even to asking for help that so often goes along with that—perhaps another indication that it’s a kid-centric title. He’s unwilling to give in to calls to duty when families are on the line, but he’s also willing (and even eager) to please his planet’s King and to take instruction in combat from Tiamat—a far more experienced fighter than he. Conversely, he doesn’t have any of the prickly pride that shounen heroes often display, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s easy to control, as his devotion to the concept of “family” comes before all else. It’s an interesting combination, really, and feels oddly refreshing.

Also, I kind of adore Tiamat. He’s pretty kick-ass, but vulnerable at the same time—a killer combination for me.

MICHELLE: You’ll have to imagine me sitting over here nodding, ‘cos I was doing a fair amount of it. I especially like your comments regarding Astro and how he differs from the typical shounen hero. Some of the same good qualities, some of the same bad (or at least impulsive) ones, but personal hangups all his own. I’m really interested to see how the series wraps up in the second volume, and I also wonder whether it was intended to be this short or if it was a casualty of one of those popularity contests we see all the time in Bakuman.

MELINDA: Yeah, I was wondering about that, too. I hope it at least got a decent wrap-up, either way. And I’ll certainly be looking forward to whatever’s next from this artist.

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  1. […] Love Spell, volume two of which is due out this week. I read this volume for this weekend’s Off the Shelf, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t just charm the heck out of me. Mayu Shinjo, I judged […]

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