The Story of Saiunkoku Volume 2 by Sai Yukino and Kairi Yura
The manga keeps moving along at a healthy pace. I was actually surprised at some of the revelations contained in this volume about Seiran’s true nature and the background of Shurei’s father, because I thought I remembered things moving much more slowly in the anime version of the story. But there’s nothing wrong with packing in a bunch of plot into a manga when it is done right! There’s plenty of court intrigue as it looks like someone is trying to poison Shurei. Ryuki shows that he’s really quite competent with subterfuge in his own right, as he manages to confiscate tainted items and give Shurei antidotes without anyone knowing about it. The point of the plot was Lord Advisor Sa trying to push Ryuki into finally acting like the Emperor everyone knows he can be. Ryuki decides to step out from the cloak of incompetence that he hid behind and take power in order to make sure that the ones he’s closest to remain protected.
One of the main reasons why I like this series so much is because Shurei is a particularly strong heroine. She’s portrayed as being extraordinarily nice but not in a cloying way. The scene that highlighted her personality occurs early in the volume, when she’s scolding Seiran for not taking adequate care of himself. She says “…just the way I always moan and complain to you when I’m upset…I want you to be able to tell me all your frustrations too.” She puts her head down on the table wondering how she’ll ever be able to repay the debts of gratitude she owes Seiran, and he tells her that her smiling face is “his greatest remedy.” As Shurei leaves the court and prepares to return to her normal life of studying and housework, I’m eagerly waiting to see the next phase of her adventures.
Stepping on Roses Volume 4 by Rinko Ueda
I love Tail of the Moon, but I’ve steered clear of Stepping on Roses because I thought this series about a poor heroine forced into a marriage of convenience with a rich businessman during the Meiji era seemed a bit too “Perils of Pauline” for me. If I hadn’t read Tail of the Moon I’d probably enjoy Stepping on Roses more because it does have a certain level of romance novel cheesiness that I usually enjoy. It suffers a bit in comparison though because Usagi and Hanzo are much more compelling characters than Sumi and Soichiro.
Sumi and Soichiro are in the type of marriage of convenience where it is clear that they both love each other but aren’t going to admit it for several volumes. Complications ensue when Natsuki introduces a maid named Keiko into the house as a spy. She’s underhanded and sneaky, trying to pry into Sumi’s hidden poor background. She attempts to sabotage Sumi and Soichiro’s relationship, but only the trusty butler Komai really knows what’s going on. I thought that Keiko was so unsneaky, it was hard to feel sorry for Sumi and Soichiro when things started to go wrong. I can’t get away from comparing this manga to Tail of the Moon. Ueda seems to specialize in sweet, ditzy heroines, but even though Usagi was frequently portrayed as incompetent, it was due to the fact that she didn’t fit in well to her ninja clan context. She was actually a skilled herbalist and only got into trouble when she attempted to act like a ninja. Also, with Hanzo’s position as being the head of a ninja plan, he had a good reason for acting gruff and strict most of the time. Sumi and Soichiro have very similar personalities when compared with Usagi and Hanzo, but I’m not finding the Meiji era setting as compelling. It is obvious that Ueda does a ton of research for her manga, so Stepping on Roses is really just suffering in comparison for being sort of ok, while Tail of the Moon was really great.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 5 by Yuki Midorikawa
Midorikawa’s gentle book about yokai continues to combine arresting images with stories of redemption. Natsume visits a nearby hotel for a cram session with his friends, and discovers that the owner is haunted by an encounter with a mermaid many years ago. He manages to bring peace to the old woman and the mermaid, who manage to acknowledge the friendship began when the inn owner was a little girl. There were a few more scenes of Natsume interacting with normal people than I remember from previous volumes. One in particular stuck in my mind, when Natsume is walking along with his classmates and grows distracted because he’s the only one who can see an invisible giant walking through the village with his head stuck in the clouds. I was happy to see a good chunk of the volume devoted to Natsume helping a girl who can also see yokai when she draws spell circles. She’s been cursed, and she draws spell circles like graffiti all over the neighborhood in an attempt to locate the spirit who cursed her. Natsume is added to the curse when she utters his name, but he decides to help her with her problem. It was nice to see Natsume make another friend who might be able to understand what he’s going through. Another story provided the reader with more details about Natsume’s grandmother who spent all of her time imprisoning yokai with her “Book of Friends.” She’s grown up completely isolated, yet still decides to help Natsume’s uncle when he was a young boy. She enters his house and subdues the spirit saying “get out, this is the house where my favorite kid lives.” Natsume gains some understanding of his grandmother when he wonders if she was alone for so long that she forgot things, thinking “the proper term for that is my friend’s house.” Natsume’s Book of Friends seems remarkably consistent. The episodic nature of the way Natusume deals with the yokai ensures that it isn’t particularly surprising but there will usually be some interesting imagery or small episodes that illuminate human character, which makes for rewarding reading.
Review copy provided by the publisher.