Whispered Words, Omnibus 1

Whispered Words, Omnibus 1Creator: Takashi Ikeda
U.S. publisher: One Peace Books
ISBN: 9781935548454
Released: May 2014
Original release: 2007-2008

Whispered Words is a nine-volume yuri manga series by Takashi Ikeda published in Japan between 2007 and 2011. It’s probably his most popular work, or a least his best-known work, and the early part of the manga was even adapted as a thirteen-episode anime series in 2009. Despite my interest in yuri manga and the series’ following, I actually didn’t know much about it until I discovered that One Peace Books had licensed the work for English release. Whispered Words, Omnibus 1, released in 2014, collects the first three volumes of the series originally published in Japan between 2007 and 2008. Considering that comparatively few yuri manga have been released in English, I was happy for the opportunity to read more in translation. Because of the excited murmuring from fans surrounding the licensing of the series, I was particularly glad for the chance to read Whispered Words. And, except for some poor editing and lettering by One Peace Books, generally I was not disappointed. Plus, it even has karate in addition to yuri!

Sumika “Violence” Murasame, a high-school first year, is in love with her classmate and best friend Ushio Kazama. Ushio likes girls, too, but the problem is that she only likes “cute” girls. Unfortunately, Sumika has come to the conclusion that she is decidedly un-cute. She’s taller than most people, athletically and academically gifted, and a genius at karate (which is what earned her her nickname). But Sumika would gladly give all of that up to become small, delicate, and cute in order to fit Ushio’s type. That’s not really a possibility, though. So instead of admitting her feelings to Ushio and potentially ruining their friendship, Sumika has chosen to keep them to herself. It’s difficult and can be painful at times, but more than anything else Sumika wants Ushio to be happy. Eventually, other classmates become aware of Sumika’s feelings for Ushio, so it seems that it’s only a matter of time before they become obvious to Ushio as well.

Although at its heart Whispered Words has a fairly serious story about friendship and unrequited love, there is also a very strong comedic element to the series. Personally, I found the silliness of the manga and the characters themselves all to be very charming. For the most part, the underlying story and relationships in Whispered Words are actually fairly realistic. However, Ikeda regularly throws in something completely outrageous, such as an impeccably timed exploding SUV or indulging in his penchant for finding any excuse to dress everyone up in maid costumes. Whispered Words can admittedly be a bit ridiculous at times, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ikeda strikes an excellent balance between the series’ humor and its more serious aspects, making for a read that is both entertaining and heartfelt. Ikeda’s artwork also reflects this duality. He effectively captures the more emotional moments—the tears, the pining, and the heartbreak, as well as the happiness and joy—but he can just as easily slip into a more comedic mode with over-the-top reactions, dynamic expressions, and exuberant poses.

The characters in Whispered Words are what really make the series work for me—not only the two leads, but their friends, families, and classmates, too. I am particularly fond of Sumika and her development, though. She so desperately wants to be something the she’s not, but it’s when she allows herself to really be who she is that she shines. This growth and the evolution of her relationship with Ushio is explored in stages in Whispered Words, often through her relationships with other characters. Tomoe Hachisuka and Miyako Taema, with whom she becomes friends, are a couple that show a lesbian relationship is not something to be ashamed of. Akemiya Masaki and Azusa Aoi are classmates who prove that others already think that Sumika is cute and admire her. The petite Charlotte Munchausen is devoted to karate, follows Sumika’s guidance, and provides an example that strength and cuteness aren’t inherently mutually exclusive. Even when played for laughs, all of these relationships are incredibly important to Sumika and are what allow her to grow as a person and will hopefully allow her to grow even closer to Ushio.

Black Bard

Black BardCreator: Ichiya Sazanami
U.S. publisher: One Peace Books
ISBN: 9781935548386
Released: November 2013
Original release: 2011-2012

Ichiya Sazanami’s Black Bard was originally published in Japan between 2011 and 2012 in three individual volumes. The English-language edition of Black Bard, released in 2013 by One Peace Books, is a single-volume omnibus with newly created cover art. I wasn’t previously familiar with Sazanami’s work and for good reason—Black Bard was not only his debut manga in English, it was also his first series to be released in Japan after winning the Media Factory Manga Award in 2011. Black Bard was initially serialized in Media Factory’s manga magazine Monthly Comic Gene which is frequently described as publishing shōnen manga for a shōjo fanbase. I haven’t been following the magazine or Sazanami very closely, but the licensing of Black Bard caught my attention for a couple of reasons: one, I generally tend to find One Peace Books’ offerings rather interesting, and two, I can’t resist the combination of music and magic.

Traveling from town to town is a somewhat sullen young man, a wandering minstrel known only as Black Bard. He is famous for his wonderful singing voice; it would not be an exaggeration to call his performances magical. Black Bard enjoys the freedom (and coin) his songs have allowed him as well as the happiness he is able to bring to others through them. Even so, he tries to keep his distance and there are very few people who would dare to call Black Bard their friend. There is Snow-Snow, a young huntress who greatly admires Black Bard and his knowledge of the world, and Windy, a traveling merchant and beast man who first met him when they were children, but Black Bard even discourages their friendship. But now that a powerful organization is interested in Black Bard, his magic song, and the past he’s tried to keep hidden, he needs friends more than ever. Not that he would admit it.

The music aspect of Black Bard was definitely one of the major draws of the manga for me. Black Bard describes himself as a mere musician, but there is undeniably magic in his song. He claims not to cast enchantments, but his music does affect others even when he is not deliberately trying to do so. Of course there are the times that Black Bard very intentionally uses the power of his music to alter reality and manipulate other people. Somewhat surprisingly, by the end of the series Black Bard has almost turned into a battle manga. Music is a significant part of those fights. But in addition to a form of magic, music’s role in Black Bard is also of a more traditional sort. The power of music, both magical and otherwise, provides comfort and brings people together. It is used as a way to convey stories and express emotion, and as a way to keep legends and history from being forgotten.

While it isn’t without its flaws, I had a tremendous amount of fun reading Black Bard. Admittedly, the world building is a mess and the story is all over the place, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the manga. At first Black Bard seems to be episodic, but once Windy and Snow-Snow make their appearance the story starts to focus in on the Black Bard’s mysterious past. Granted, some of that backstory would have been more effective had it been revealed earlier in the manga and some things are never adequately explained. As the manga progresses, the references to Alice in Wonderland become increasingly prominent. However, those references don’t actually add much to Black Bard except to lend a few names and influence some of the character designs. In general, Black Bard is very attractive art-wise and is an entertaining mix of silliness and drama. I know that I would certainly be interested in reading more of Sazanami’s work.

The Bible: A Japanese Manga Rendition

Creator: Variety Art Works
U.S. publisher: One Peace Books
ISBN: 9781935548102
Released: March 2012
Original release: 2010

The Bible: A Japanese Manga Rendition was originally produced by Variety Art Works in Japan in 2010 and was released as two separate volumes, The Old Testament and The New Testament. The books are a part of the East Press series Manga de Dokuha (“Read through manga”) which aims to publish accessible manga editions of classic world literature, including novels, philosophical and religious works, and political treatises in the hopes that more people will be willing to read them. One Peace Books published the English edition of Variety Art Works’ Bible in 2012. The publisher also plans to release other manga from Manga de Dokuha in the future. Although I have been pleasantly surprised and impressed by some of One Peace Books’ previous manga releases, such as Tenken and Breathe Deeply, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t particularly interested in The Bible: A Japanese Manga Rendition. Had I not been sent a review copy, I probably would have skipped over it entirely.

“This is the chronicle of God as he leads the people of Israel through many trials.” Thus begins Variety Art Works’ manga adaptation of The Bible. Starting with the creation of the Earth and continuing with other select stories from the Old Testament—Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, the life of Abraham, the Exodus, the formation of the kingdom of Israel, and more—the manga rendition covers quite a bit of ground although there are plenty of tales which weren’t included. The last third or so of Variety Art Works’ Bible adaptation turns to the New Testament, focusing on the life of Jesus. Both the Old and New Testaments are central sacred texts of the Christian faiths. As is briefly alluded to at the end of Variety Art Works’ manga adaptation, for many the Bible is literally the Word of God. The Bible is an incredibly important work of world and religious literature and is very important to many different people as individuals as well.

I grew up in a small rural village where religious diversity more or less amounted to what kind of Protestant you were, so I was already quite familiar with all of the stories collected in The Bible: A Japanese Manga Rendition. Variety Art Works’ adaptation of the Old Testament is very straightforward, often using direct quotes and close paraphrases of the scriptures. The adaptation of the New Testament is slightly more mediated. The stories are what I would call “cleaned up” Sunday School versions, appropriate for all ages but missing some of the more challenging, and I would argue the more interesting, aspects of the narratives. Most of the selections included from the Old Testament are the stories that directly relate to the lineage of Jesus Christ. As I previously mentioned, Variety Art Works’ rendition of the New Testament focuses almost exclusively on the life and death of Jesus although the books of Acts and Revelations are also briefly touched upon. It might not be immediately obvious to someone who isn’t already familiar with the Bible, but Jesus truely is the unifying theme of the adaptation, which certainly makes sense.

In a lot of ways, The Bible: A Japanese Manga Rendition reminds me of the Great Illustrated Classics that I devoured as a kid. The artwork does leave something to be desired and is somewhat uninspiring, but it does get the point across. As a whole, I greatly preferred the adaptation of the Old Testament to that of the New Testament. The change in art style and creative teams between the two was jarring and the New Testament wasn’t nearly as good. There have been many other comic and illustrated editions of the Bible published and this version simply doesn’t stand out art-wise. But what I find particularly intriguing about Variety Art Works’ adaptation is that it was originally intended for a Japanese audience. Christians are a religious minority in Japan with only around two percent of the population identifying as such. For the most part, I think The Bible: A Japanese Manga Rendition is successful in what it is trying to do—it provides an accessible introduction to the Bible and by extension Christianity. For me personally, it’s more of a curiosity than anything else.

Thank you to One Peace Books for providing a copy of The Bible: A Japanese Manga Rendition for review.

Breathe Deeply

Creator: Doton Yamaaki
U.S. publisher: One Peace Books
ISBN: 9781935548072
Released: October 2011
Original release: 2010

Breathe Deeply is the first work by Doton Yamaaki, a husband and wife creative team, to have been translated into English. Breathe Deeply was originally published in Japan in 2010. I had never heard of the manga or of the creator before seeing the title listed in One Peace Book’s catalog for 2011. I read and quite enjoyed Yumiko Shirai’s Tenken, One Peace Books’ first foray into publishing fiction manga; that alone was enough to interest me greatly in Breathe Deeply. If Tenken was any example to go by, Breathe Deeply promised to be an engaging and distinctive work. I was really looking forward to reading it and was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to receive a review copy of the book. While I wasn’t previously familiar with Doton Yamaaki’s work, the pair has apparently received several awards for their creative endeavours.

Sei and Oishi are two men who were profoundly affected by the loss of their beloved Yuko to a heart condition when they were young. Fifteen years later they are still haunted by their memories of her and are driven by them to find a solution to her illness. Sei a chemical engineer, has met with recent success, creating a polymer-based artificial heart. At the other end of the scientific spectrum, Oishi is struggling to have his research into regenerative cells accepted. Both of the men’s work is cause for some amount of controversy within the scientific community. Just as they vied for the affections of Yuko when they were younger, they continue to compete in pursuit of their goal, convinced that their own theories, beliefs, and ideals are the correct ones. But even on the verge of a breakthrough, both Sei and Oishi must still deal with their guilt and their grief.

Scientific inquiry can be cutthroat and ruthless. While I don’t feel Breathe Deeply has an agenda, other than to tell a compelling story, generally speaking the engineers are portrayed in a slightly better light than their peers in the medical school. More of this has to do with the researchers themselves rather than their actual work. The Chief, for one, is a horrible person even if she makes a memorable character. (I can’t say that I was unhappy when she has to deal with the consequences of some of her actions.) On the other hand Oishi, a stem-cell researcher, is one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire manga, even considering some of the terrible things he has done in his past. The depth and complexity of the the characters and their relationships, particularly the awkward one between Sei and Oishi, is one of Breathe Deeply‘s strongest points. The two men are somewhat antagonistic toward each other, but their shared bond over Yuko’s loss also serves as an important source of support and strength.

I enjoyed Breathe Deeply a great deal; although the story can be a touch melodramatic at times, the manga remains emotionally convincing throughout. Yuko is absolutely critical to the story. Just how important she is to Oishi and Sei is readily apparent in Breath Deeply‘s. The manga easily shifts between the present and the past. I would hesitate to call them flashbacks because the memories are still so real and vital to the two men’s current lives. The artwork aids in the transitions—past events being colored in lighter shades of grey—making the story easy to follow and naturally flow. The artwork also features photorealistic backgrounds and landscapes, using shading more than screentones. I am very happy I had the chance to read Breathe Deeply and hope to see more work by Doton Yamaaki available in English in the future.

Thank you to One Peace Books for providing a copy of Breathe Deeply for review.


Author: Osamu Dazai
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
U.S. publisher: One Peace Books
ISBN: 9781935548089
Released: October 2011
Original release:1939

Osamu Dazai’s novella Schoolgirl was one of his breakthrough works as an author. Dazai is best known for his short novels The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, both of which I have read and enjoyed, No Longer Human being my personal favorite. I was very pleased to learn that One Peace Books recently published a new translation by Allison Markin Powell of Dazai’s earlier work and was even more pleased when I was offered a review copy of the book. Originally published in Japan in 1939, Schoolgirl has been translated into English at least two other times (once by Lane Dunlop in 1992 and once more previously by Ralph F. McCarthy in 1988), neither of which I have read, making Powell’s translation the first I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy. Schoolgirl is also the first volume in One Peace Books’ new Modern Japanese Classics series which will continue to feature novellas as well as longer works of literature.

Schoolgirl follows the day in the life of a Japanese teenager in the late 1930s from the moment she wakes up until she once again falls asleep. She tells her own story candidly, more for herself than for anyone who might be prying. I’m not always a fan of stream-of-conscious storytelling, but Schoolgirl flows naturally and remains engaging throughout the novella. As the story progresses, the girl reveals her desires from petty wishes to more substantial dreams, shares her frustrations from minor irritations to deepest grief, and exhibits a growing maturity in how she approaches her life. She is a girl on the brink of adulthood, intelligent and sincere and a little bit selfish, and not without her share of troubles and worry.

One of the things that makes Dazai’s works so potent is the sense of authenticity with which his characters are imbued. They are likeable, imperfect, and completely believable as people. This is true of the titular schoolgirl as well. I found her to be charming and appreciated how honest she could be with herself. She’s still in the process of growing up and finding herself. There were moments when I couldn’t help but smile and think “Just wait until you’re a little bit older, you’ll understand better.” She may be a fictional character, but I found myself wishing the best for her as if I actually knew her. Another thing that impresses me about the characters in Dazai’s stories is that no matter how unlike me they are, I am still able to identify with them and care about them. I am in no way a late 1930s Japanese schoolgirl, but even though most aspects of our lives are different we still shared some similar thought processes and personal quirks. Dazai’s writing can be surprisingly universal.

Although I haven’t read any other translations of Schoolgirl in order to compare, I was quite happy with Powell’s work on the novella. The accessible translation reads nicely, is almost poetic in places, and while I would exactly call it “bubbly,” it is well suited as the voice of a precocious teenage girl. I did find myself interrupting my reading to look up references to pieces of literature mentioned with which I was unfamiliar, so it would have been nice if a few cultural notes would have been included as well. This additional information is not absolutely critical to the understanding and enjoyment of Schoolgirl although it does add some extra depth to the narrative. While Schoolgirl may not be as obviously tragic as some of Dazai’s following works, echos of the story and the themes he deals with in it can be readily found later on. I am very glad that I finally had an opportunity to read one of Dazai’s earliest successes. I’m also looking forward tremendously to seeing what other delights One Peace Books will be bringing readers as part of the Modern Japanese Classics series.

Thank you to One Peace Books for providing a copy of Schoolgirl for review.