Guest Post: Sweet Blue Flowers, Vol. 1

Earlier this year my good friend Jocilyn Wagner contributed a review of Hiroki Ugawa’s Shrine of the Morning Mist, Volume 1 to Experiments in Manga. She was recently inspired to do so more manga blogging and to write another review, and so I’m happy to welcome Jocilyn back to Experiments in Manga! This time she’ll be taking a look at the Digital Manga Guild edition of Sweet Blue Flowers, Volume 1 by Takako Shimura.

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Easily Shimura Takako’s most well-known manga endeavour, Sweet Blue Flowers is an unforgettable bildungsroman of the classic Japanese girl’s school (minus the dorm boarding). The story focuses on two heroines: Manjoume Fumi and Okudaira Akira. Childhood friends who were separated for elementary and junior high and by coincidence have moved into the same neighborhood together for high school. The girls, who don’t at first recognize each other, are reintroduced when Akira (called “Aki” in this version) saves the timid Fumi from train molestation. Although the two attend different schools, their close friendship and shared interest in acting cause Fumi to find excuses to attend theatre club at Aki’s much more wealthy/prestigious school.

The setting of two close-knit girls’ schools often lends itself to a Yuri manga and Sweet Blue Flowers positively embraces the plot line. As the story opens, Fumi (tall and bashful) is recovering from her separation with Chizu, Fumi’s first love, a cousin who’s getting married. Enter in the dashing heartbreaker Sugimoto Yasuko who’s been recently cast against her will as the swoon-worthy Heathcliff. Yasuko is immediately smitten of Fumi and Fumi is quick to return her feelings (…perhaps too quick?). Despite being easily embarrassed and a worrier, Fumi manages to confide the relationship and her sexuality in Aki. The level-headed Aki doesn’t really understand why this would be a problem but ponders the issue while Fumi, who’s assumed it will come between them slips into fear-induced avoidance of her. When Aki’s finally able to snag Fumi aside she asks her, “What can I do to support you?”

Sweet Blue Flowers is as wonderful and poignant in English as it is in Japanese. The story is moving and rapturous. I’m really hopeful DMP can publish Sweet Blue Flowers in print…

But now I think I have a better understanding of why they might not. Compared to Fantagraphics’ Wandering Son, this version of Aoihana is frankly an embarrassment that in no way lives up to the beauty of the original and really shouldn’t be printed as is. It’s in desperate need of an English adapter and some real copy editing. As a Shimura fangirl, I really want to see Aoihana in print, so just in case the project leader is listening, the following is a substantial critique. The optimist should stop reading here. :)

The biggest problem in my mind is that bizarrely, instead of how it’s always been rendered “Ah-chan” in both the original manga AND the anime near and dear by now to the hearts of North Americans, this version replaces all the Ah-chans with “Aki.” To be fair, Aki is more of a fleshed out name than Ah-chan, but it’s really a boy’s name and it doesn’t suit Akira’s character, besides which it’s not a name Shimura-sensei chose. Part of what makes Aoihana so cute is that the Okudaira siblings have their names reversed: that is to say, Akira is usually though not always a boy’s name and Shinobu is similarly a girl’s name occasionally used for boys. Perhaps the idea here with “Aki” was to emphasize that her name doesn’t fit the image? Yet I think Shimura-sensei would argue that’s exactly why she’s always been called Ah-chan (to make up for/ignore the more masculine Akira). Put simply, Akira is always called Ah-chan because she’s ridiculously cute and her role in the story is to be the best friend and onee-chan from Fumi’s childhood, thus someone you’d want to give a cute nickname to like “Ah-chan.” Perhaps because she’s given a bit more wisdom than other characters or because of her future role in the story, the DMG team chose to call her Aki. At any rate, it feels like an awkward and unnecessary change that will stick out painfully to most fans of the work.

Additionally, there’s just too much left untranslated in terms of signage with parenthetical notes given instead that really detract from the flow of the reading. As far as I can tell, all the signs and documents are left untranslated (even ones that couldn’t possibly be hurt by replacement with English such as the heading card in the photo album scrapbook that reads “Christmas Party” or the words on the cake for Chizu’s party) which comes off looking like the typesetter just couldn’t be bothered/too inexperienced to handle the job. For the none-Japanese reader it’s too much work to constantly be hunting for marginalia. Shimura’s penmanship isn’t all that legible anyway (most were drawn with marker), so if you can read Japanese, leaving the signs as is doesn’t necessarily help things—except in the case of one of her school gateway engravings, it doesn’t exactly have a “Shoudo” quality. Perhaps the concept here is to give the English reader a sense that they’re really in Kamakura, but that’s actually doing Shimura-sensei a disservice as the gorgeous well-researched setting she’s drawn is more stark and striking than most mangaka can muster.

sweet blue flowers snippita

Add to this a lot of really tiring typographical errors such as “Pap” for “Pat” and “Beautiful is Youth” “Hasegawwa” and “Fajisawa”, really detract from the reading experience. The emanga version of Sweet Blue Flowers is very welcome and we love you for it, but please consider further editing before sending it to the printer.

In terms of the digital file, it’s definitely topknotch. Emanga allows you to choose from among seven or eight major formats as well as offering you the option of reading your books through their proprietary online reader. I was really happy to be able to get Sweet Blue Flowers in PDF since it looks and functions the best on the iPad. It’s not always the most annotation friendly, but since manga is an artistic medium it makes sense to use an Adobe format to access it. Unfortunately, once you’ve chosen to download the file in one format, you’re stuck with only that single file type and you’d need to repurchase it from emanga to get it in a different format (DRM is kinda evil like that). I had no trouble downloading the file and it opens great on all my devices. Given their many options for downloading, their pricing system that’s free from points and rentals and their interface with Amazon, I’d highly recommend emanga over some other digital manga sites I’ve tried (except when it comes to editing).

Yashakiden: The Demon Princess, Volume 3

Author: Hideyuki Kikuchi
Illustrator: Jun Suemi

Translator: Eugene Woodbury
U.S. publisher: Digital Manga
ISBN: 9781569701478
Released: November 2010
Original release: 2007

Yashakiden: The Demon Princess is a series of vampire novels written by Hideyuki Kikuchi and illustrated by Jun Suemi. The novels take place in Kikuchi’s Demon City Shinjuku setting, of which I am particularly fond. The third volume of Digital Manga’s English-language release of Yashakiden, translated by Eugene Woodbury, is actually an omnibus edition collecting the third and fourth volumes of the original Japanese series. The omnibus edition published in 2010 is based on the 2007 release of the novels (which may have also been an omnibus release, but I’m not certain.) However, the third and fourth novels in Yashakiden were originally written in 1989 and 1990 respectively. Digital Manga’s omnibus also includes “A Vampire Tale Like No Other,” an essay written by Yoshiharu Sasagawa about Demon City Shinjuku, Yashakiden, and Kikuchi’s work in general.

Despite the best efforts of Aki Setsura and Doctor Mephisto, two of Shinjuku’s most terrifying and capable residents, Princess and her entourage of Chinese vampires are slowly gaining control of Demon City. Setsura was severely injured and is still recovering, Mephisto continues to act strangely, and many of their allies have either been killed or taken hostage. To makes matters even worse, the vampires’ influence continues to spread as more and more of Shinjuku’s leadership fall victim to their fangs. The situation has gotten so bad that forces outside of Demon City Shinjuku are threatening and preparing to interfere. Setsura and Mephisto still present enough of a problem on their own for Princess and her plans that she has released Kazikli Bey, yet another powerful and deadly vampire, from his imprisonment. As the volatile situation in Shinjuku becomes more complicated, the city is drawn even closer to the brink of chaos and destruction.

Frankly, Yashakiden frustrates me. Although Kikuchi has a ton of great ideas, and I continue to love Demon City Shinjuku as a setting, he hasn’t been able to pull everything together into a cohesive whole quite yet. I find that I often know what’s going on without really understanding why. Some of the individual scenes and scenarios in Yashakiden are exciting and have great execution, particularly the action sequences, but I’m frequently at a loss as to how they are all connected to one another. Kikuchi’s writing style in Yashakiden is very sparse with little extensive description. In fact, it is so direct and to the point that I often felt that I was missing out on crucial information. Occasionally, the narrative would seem to contradict itself which would leave me confused even after several re-readings. As unadorned as Kikuchi’s writing in Yashakiden is, it can also be very unfocused.

Yashakiden was originally planned to be four volumes long. It quickly became clear to Kikuchi and his editors that four novels weren’t going to be enough; he kept adding new characters and plot developments. I’m not sure how much of Yashakiden Kikuchi had planned out in advance. It frequently seems as though he’s making things up as he goes. Ultimately, the series ended up being eight volumes long. With Yashakiden: The Demon Princess, Volume 3 the story has reached its midway point. Overall, the volume is better balanced than those preceding it. As Kikuchi states in the author’s notes, the story is beginning to “gel.” Yashakiden isn’t as blatantly sexualized or grotesque as it once was. Although those elements still exist, they are better incorporated into the plot as a whole. As much as Yashakiden frustrates me, there is still enough in the series that intrigues me; I’ll probably continue on with the series for at least a little while longer.

Vampire Hunter D, Volume 1

Creator: Saiko Takaki
Original story: Hideyuki Kikuchi

U.S. publisher: Digital Manga
ISBN: 9781569708279
Released: November 2007

My introduction to the works of Hideyuki Kikuchi was through Vampire Hunter D, Volume 1, Saiko Takaki’s manga adaptation of Kikuchi’s light novel of the same name. I first read Vampire Hunter D, Volume 1 after borrowing it from my local library; later, Digital Manga would send me a copy as part of a Kikuchi care package. It seemed appropriate to give Vampire Hunter D, Volume 1 another, closer look for the October 2012 Manga Moveable Feast which focused on vampire manga. The Vampire Hunter D manga adaptation is an interesting project. Coordinated by Digital Manga with Kikuchi’s direct involvement, the goal is for each volume of the original Vampire Hunter D series of novels to be adapted. (So far, six of the more than twenty novels have received the treatment.) Takaki was personally selected by Kikuchi to work on the project and is responsible for illustrating and adapting the novels as manga. Vampire Hunter D, Volume 1 was simultaneously released worldwide in 2007.

After nearly annihilating themselves in a nuclear holocaust, the remnants of human society now struggle to survive in a world filled with mutants and monsters, the most powerful of which is a race of vampires known as the Nobility. But even the Nobility’s reign of terror can’t last forever; thousands of years later the vampires themselves are now also in decline. Even though their control over the world is slipping away, the Nobility are still extremely dangerous and are a threat to what is left of humankind. Doris Lang, a beautiful young woman from the frontier town of Ransylva, has been bitten by one of the Nobility, putting her life at great risk. To save herself, she hires a vampire hunter known only as “D.” Although appearing as a young man, D is a dhampir—the son of a human mother and one of the Nobility. Reviled by both vampires and humans, D is in an unusual position. His heritage grants him superhuman skills and power, making him an ideal vampire hunter and nearly as dangerous as the Nobility.

Takaki’s artwork in Vampire Hunter D is well-suited for the story. It’s darkly beautiful, striking, and yet disconcerting. (Although, perhaps, not always as horrifying as I might hope.) At times the art is vaguely reminiscent of the work of Yoshitaka Amano, the illustrator for the Vampire Hunter D novels. Great care has been taken with the character designs, especially D’s. He is the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome—easily the prettiest character in the manga. I particularly liked the attention given to the details of his attire. A brooding anti-hero who rarely smiles, the more terrifying side of D’s dhampir nature is rarely seen. It’s easy to forget how dangerous he really is as he plays the part of the “good guy” well. But occasionally there is a glimpse of fangs and malice as he struggles to control his desires.

While I wasn’t overly impressed by Vampire Hunter D, Volume 1 when I read it for the first time, the manga has grown on me after subsequent readings. Since I haven’t yet read the original Vampire Hunter D novel, I can’t comment on how the manga compares or even how it works as an adaptation. However, I do think it is fairly successful as its own work. The story is quickly paced but there are leaps and potential inconsistencies in the plot that require readers to fill in what happened themselves. (This is actually something I’ve seen in other works by Kikuchi, so it wouldn’t surprise me if this issue comes directly from the source material.) Still, there is plenty that I like about Vampire Hunter D, Volume 1: it’s post-apocalyptic setting, D himself, the mix of traditional vampire lore and advanced technology, the interesting powers granted to the mutants. In the end, I do want to read more of the Vampire Hunter D manga and maybe even give the original novels a try.

Thank you to Digital Manga for providing a copy of Vampire Hunter D, Volume 1 for review.

Demon City Shinjuku: The Complete Edition

Author: Hideyuki Kikuchi
Illustrator: Jun Suemi

Translator: Eugene Woodbury
U.S. publisher: Digital Manga
ISBN: 9781569702086
Released: July 2011
Original release: 2007

Demon City Shinjuku: The Complete Edition collects two of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s early novels: his debut, Demon City Shinjuku, written in 1982, and its sequel written six years later in 1988, Demon Palace Babylon. Digital Manga’s English translation by Eugene Woodbury published in 2011 is based on the 2007 Japanese omnibus release of the novels. Although there aren’t very many of them considering the length of Demon City Shinjuku: The Complete Edition, the illustrations by Jun Suemi are also included in Digital Manga’s release. Up until now, the only novels that I had read by Kikuchi are from his series Yashakiden: The Demon Princess. So far my favorite part of that series has been its setting, Demon City Shinjuku, which is why I was particularly pleased to have received a review copy of Demon City Shinjuku: The Complete Edition from Digital Manga. I was interested in learning more about Demon City Shinjuku’s origins.

The World Federation’s president is on the verge of death, thanks to the efforts of the sorcerer Reba Ra. Ra’s thirst for power has led him to attempt to create a new demon realm out of the world by using the president’s life as a catalyst. The only man that could have stopped the sorcerer is dead, but Ra didn’t realize that the man had had a son. At fifteen years old, Kyoya Izayoi is an unlikely hero, but has undergone intense training in the martial and spiritual art of nenpo. Naturally talented and under his father’s tutelage, he has become an extremely skilled practicioner. The responsibility of saving the world has now fallen to him. To find Ra, he must enter the remains of Shinjuku. Devastated by a bizarre, massive earthquake, it is now known as Demon City Shinjuku and is home to both dangerous criminal elements the paranormal. Even if Kyoya can deal with the immediate crisis, Demon City has the tendency to attract trouble.

To be perfectly honest, Demon City Shinjuku doesn’t have much of a plot. Demon Palace Babylon starts with a bit more, but falls apart at the end. Instead, the setups seem to be more of an excuse for Kikuchi to have Kyoya run around and explore Demon City, encountering and dealing with various supernatural elements along the way. As I have already admitted, I happen to like Demon City Shinjuku, so the lack of plot didn’t bother me too much. Demon City Shinjuku allows Kikuchi to throw whatever he wants into a story. Advanced technology works alongside magic and mysticism. For every zombie, demon, or monster there is a cyborg, psychic, or mutant. Kikuchi draws from established legends and history and joins them with his own creations. But once again, I find that I am more enamored with the setting of Demon City Shinjuku than I am with the story being told.

Demon City Shinjuku: The Complete Edition reads quickly but a reader should be careful not to rush through. Kikuchi’s style is very informal and sparse; important details may only be mentioned once in passing, making them easy to miss. Demon City Shinjuku: The Complete Edition will probably appeal most to established fans of Kikuchi or the Demon City setting. As some of Kikuchi’s earliest published work, both Demon City Shinjuku and Demon Palace Babylon serve as a sort of precursor or prototype for his later novels and characters. While Kyoya only appears in these two works (which I’m fine with since he’s a bit of an arrogant jerk and I didn’t like him much) other characters that are introduced do return. Perhaps most important is Doctor Mephisto, who plays a major role in Yashakiden as well as in many of Kikuchi’s other novels. And then of course there is Demon City Shinjuku itself, which Kikuchi returns to repeatedly in his works. I was happy for the opportunity to learn more about Kikuchi’s and the city’s beginnings.

Thank you to Digital Manga for providing a copy of Demon City Shinjuku: The Complete Edition for review.

Yashakiden: The Demon Princess, Volume 2

Author: Hideyuki Kikuchi
Illustrator: Jun Suemi

Translator: Eugene Woodbury
U.S. publisher: Digital Manga
ISBN: 9781569701461
Released: May 2010
Original release: 2007

Since beginning Yashakiden: The Demon Princess I have read a few of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s manga collaborations, but Yashakiden remains the only prose work of his that I have read. I’ll admit, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the first volume in the series. Despite brief moments of brilliance, overall I found the novel to be pretty cringe-worthy. However, there as enough that intrigued me in the first volume of Yashakiden, particularly Demon City Shinjuku, the setting of the story, that I wanted to read at least the second volume as well. Digital Manga Publishing released the English translation by Eugene Woodbury in 2010 and was kind enough to send me a review copy. The edition, which includes illustrations by Jun Suemi, is based on the version of the novel that was published in Japan in 2007. Kikuchi completed the work in 1997.

The second volume of Yashakiden begins immediately where the first volume leaves the story off. Four ancient Chinese vampires have come to Demon City Shinjuku to make the city their own. Two of the city’s most formidable residents, Aki Setsura and Doctor Mephisto, oppose them. They don’t entirely trust each other, but the two men must work together, even forming an alliance with Demon City Shinjuku’s local vampire population. It’s not enough. Neither side of the conflict comes through unscathed from the ensuing struggle for control over Demon City Shinjuku: there have been numerous deaths, Setsura is in the hospital unconscious, Mephisto is acting strangely, and the vampires on both sides are all worse for wear. Still, the Chinese vampires’ influence over the city continues to grow as they turn leaders of the government and the police force. To make matters even more complicated, most of those living in Demon City Shinjuku aren’t even aware of the danger they are in.

I am very happy to be able to say that the writing style of the second volume of Yashakiden greatly improves upon that of the first. I do wish it was a little more descriptive, though. Quite frequently important details are introduced only when they are immediately needed. This can make things a bit confusing for the reader from time to time, such as during an action sequence in which a character suddenly makes use of a sword that he had apparently been carrying the whole time but that I couldn’t remember ever having been mentioned. But overall, the writing is much better in the second volume. The tone and pacing of the story, which varied wildly in the first volume, is much more even, as well.

Yashakiden continues to intrigue me. In the second volume, Kikuchi has introduced some new plot elements in addition to developing those that have already been established. Mephisto, who has always come across as a little odd, has become a more interesting character now that his stoic facade is starting to crumble. As for Setsura, I am becoming more and more curious to learn about his “other” self of which Kikuchi has only allowed readers glimpses so far. I do enjoy the scenes in which the two men appear together; they know how to push each other’s buttons and I find their mutual needling to be rather amusing. While Yashakiden isn’t a series that I would rush out to recommend to just anyone, personally I plan to follow it a bit further. I’m hoping that each volume continues to improve and am honestly interested in seeing where Kikuchi takes things next.

Thank you to Digital Manga for providing a copy of Yashakiden: The Demon Princess, Volume 2 for review.