MJ: Well, hello, Michelle! Happy Thanksgiving! And other expressions of holiday cheer!
MICHELLE: And the same to you! At this present moment, I am looking forward to a turkey sandwich in my future!
MJ: That sounds delicious! Have any manga to talk about while you munch away?
MICHELLE: Mochiron desu! I’ll start with the debut of Umineko: When They Cry, the latest license from Ryukishi07, who also created Higurashi: When They Cry.
Although I have read a couple of Higurashi side arcs, I still have yet to read the main series. When initial reviews for the first volume were positive, I actually checked it out in the store, but was turned off by the “byoing” sound effects accompanying a female character’s bosoms and returned the book to the shelf. After enjoying the side arcs, I did go back and collect a few volumes but I missed my chance to follow it from the beginning, which was why I wanted to give Umineko a chance. I almost didn’t make it, because the title is front-loaded with even more boob-centric shenanigans.
The story begins in October 1986. Members of the Ushiromiya family are gathering at Rokkenjima island for their annual reunion. Our protagonist is 18-year-old Battler, who has been estranged from the family for six years, so he’s seeing some of his cousins for the first time in while. In short order, he proposes performing an exam on a cousin his own age to see how much she’s grown, coerces a nine-year-old cousin to promise that she’ll grow up to “be a graceful lady and let me touch your boobs whenever I want,” and very nearly goes through with groping a ridiculously well-endowed servant who’s in no position to fend him off. He claims that he is joking around and just trying to provoke a reaction, but not surprisingly, none of the girls is amused.
Though Battler’s boob fixation pops up a few more times, the story thankfully begins to focus on the weird behavior of the family patriarch and the legend of a witch who is reportedly the source of the family fortune. While Battler’s parents squabble over their inheritance, his grandfather concludes his contract with the witch, freeing her to select members of the family as sacrifices, which she does in grisly fashion. Meanwhile, an epitaph accompanying a portrait of the witch provides instructions by which the deaths may be reserved. By the end of the volume, a nicely creepy atmosphere has been achieved.
All in all, though, the mystery is just intriguing enough to bring me back a second time. I don’t like the art. I don’t like Battler. I don’t like the nine-year-old cousin, Maria, who has a verbal tic that causes her to say “uuu” all the time. (Seriously, there’s one panel where her dialogue reads, “Uuu, uuu, uuu!! Uuu, uuu!! Uuu, uuu!! Uuu, uuu, uuu!!”) I don’t mean to insult readers who enjoy moe and fanservice, but it’s personally really difficult for me to endure them.
MJ: Wow… you know, I just don’t know if I have it in me to put up with the fanservice and the moe “uuu”-ing, even for a good mystery. Have I just become old and jaded?
MICHELLE: I don’t think so. It’s probably more a matter of “Life’s too short to read things I don’t like!” And honestly, I’m not sure this is even going to be a good mystery. I just kind of want to see what happens next. It’s entirely possible I’ll give up on it before the end.
Anyway, what have you been reading this week?
MJ: Well, after all the fantastic comments and feedback we received on last week’s BL Bookrack: Best of 2012, I found myself with a growing list of titles I felt I should try—particularly from SuBLime, which has been a tough imprint for me so far in terms of finding books I like. I decided to check out the first of these, Toko Kawai’s The Scent of Apple Blossoms, and this turned out to be a very good choice for me. As soon as I finished the first volume, I purchased the other two and gobbled them up whole.
You covered the series’ premise nicely in your review earlier this year, so I won’t go over it too thoroughly here. In short, Japanese-American Haruna works for a liquor seller in Japan. Part of his job includes trying to persuade local brewers to sell their products to his company to be sold in their shops and restaurants. While visiting an especially cranky brewer, he falls in love at first site with the master brewer’s grandson, Nakagawa. The first volume mainly consists of Haruna trying to wear down the master brewer while also pursuing his seemingly unrequited feelings for Nakagawa, but this is BL, so you know he’s going to succeed in his romantic adventures by the end.
The plot here is hardly the point, however. This story is incredibly, incredibly sweet, yet somehow never fluffy, and the relationships—even the protagonist’s generally unbelievable seduction of a straight man—feel natural and never rushed. Haruna’s American forthrightness is genuinely charming, and it’s easy to see why reserved Nakagawa would be both confounded and fascinated by it. Situations that might normally read as relentless non-con are magically saved by a combination of Nakagawa’s badass demeanor and Haruna’s straightforwardness and unwillingness to make a move without permission. And even the loathed (by me anyway) seme/uke thing is written in a way that feels weirdly natural.
The first volume brings the couple together just as expected, and at this point many writers would have to fabricate unbelievable conflicts just to keep the story going. But Haruna and Nakagawa’s vastly different personalities lend themselves to frequent bumps in the road that actually read as genuine. A favorite section of mine involves an ex-boyfriend of Haruna’s coming to town. This causes some of the conflict you might imagine—serious Nakagawa isn’t happy about the way easygoing Haruna keeps in touch with his exes, which leaves Haruna to figure out how to handle it all without lying to anyone—but Kawai refuses to make these characters into rigid stereotypes, so everything plays out with the kind of real emotional give-and-take you would expect to see in actual life. As a result, what could easily have read as pure melodrama is instead a thoughtful take on the nuances of friendships and romantic relationships, and learning to communicate honestly with one’s partner—only a lot more charming and fun than that sounds!
As a bonus, I also learned a lot about sake, and it really made me want to buy some. Is that a good thing? I’m going to decide that it is.
MICHELLE: I’m so glad that you liked this! I actually haven’t read the other two volumes yet, so you’ve inspired me to check them out.
If you’re interested in more Toko Kawai, I really liked CUT, Café Latte Rhapsody, and In the Walnut. I’m also really intrigued by Just Around the Corner, but I haven’t managed to read it yet.
I guess this amount of gushing means I’m a Toko Kawai fangirl!
MJ: I suspect I will be soon as well!
So, our mutual read comes from VIZ this week. Want to do the introductory honors?
Strobe Edge is a shoujo series from Shueisha—ten volumes total, originally serialized in Betsuma—that covers the well-trod terrain of a high school girl experiencing first love. Ninako Kinoshita is earnest and innocent, and though she joins her friends in admiring school heartthrob Ren Ichinose, she mostly thinks of it as a way to pass the time. When she actually has a chance to talk to Ren, however, and realizes how sweet and awkward he is in his effort to replace a cell phone charm he accidentally stepped on, she begins to feel closer to him. Up to this point, Ninako’s been content to accept the opinions of others as true—a shopkeeper says an apple is delicious, so it must be; my friends tell me what I feel for my friend Daiki is love, so it must be—but now she’s beginning to think for herself. What is it that she’s feeling for Ren?
It would be easy to label this as generic shoujo, and I really can’t claim that it’s forging new territory, but I found the characters to be likable and sympathetic. It’s total comfort-read material, more in the vein of a Kimi ni Todoke than a Black Bird (for which I am profoundly grateful!).
MJ: My experience with this book was fairly mixed, I’ll admit. About twenty pages in or so, I remember thinking (and actually saying out loud to the others in the room), “I’m so bored.” That was my initial reaction to Strobe Edge. “I’m so bored.” Yet, weirdly, even though that impression did not honestly change much over the course of the volume, by the time I reached its romantic cliffhanger ending, I felt extremely anxious to know what happens next.
And I think this may all come down to the likeableness of the story’s characters, as you mention. Despite the fact that I had difficulty getting invested in yet another high school crush, there were some characters I really felt for, and eventually this even included the story’s heroine, Ninako, though I’d had trouble connecting with her in the beginning. In particular, though, I felt immense sympathy for Daiki, who doesn’t have any confusion over what he feels for Ninako, yet is the one most being left out in the cold. And while I generally found Ninako’s endless waffling and naiveté over what “love” is—not that this isn’t a question all humans wrestle with, but man, how does a girl get to be in high school without having been saturated in the concept through books, TV, even advertisements, for heaven’s sake—she at least knows enough to stop stringing Daiki along after figuring it out.
MICHELLE: Yes, I really liked that about her, too. I guess it’s more of the “making up her own mind” progress, wherein she just instinctively knows that going out with Daiki while continuing to like Ren would be completely unfair. Speaking of unfair, I think Ren’s somewhat in the wrong for showing excessive kindness to Ninako while he already had a girlfriend, but he probably liked having the chance to connect with someone instead of remaining merely an object of distant adoration, so it’s hard to fault him, either.
Suffice it to say, I join you in your anxiety to know what happens next. There are a few wrinkles by the end that at least suggest the series will not tread the predictable path, but even if it does do that, I’d probably still enjoy it.
MJ: I suppose I probably will, too! Despite my early ambivalence, I clearly care at this point. Such is the nature of shoujo addiction.