Maid-sama!, Omnibus 1

Maid-sama!, Omnibus 1Creator: Hiro Fujiwara
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421581309
Released: August 2015
Original release: 2006-2007

Maid-sama! is an eighteen-volume manga series created by Hiro Fujiwara. The series was initially licensed for English translation by Tokyopop, which released the first eight volumes of the manga between 2009 and 2011. More recently, Maid-sama! was rescued by Viz Media. The manga is being released under the Shojo Beat imprint in an omnibus edition, each English-language omnibus collecting two volumes of the series’ original Japanese release. The first Maid-sama! omnibus was published in 2015 and includes the first and second volumes of the manga published in 2006 and 2007 respectively. (The first volume also contains Fujiwara’s earlier short manga “A Transparent World.”) Maid-sama! was Fujiwara’s first major success as a mangaka. However, it wasn’t until Viz’s release of Maid-sama! that the series came to my attention when I noted the enthusiastic response of fans surrounding its return. I was therefore very happy to have the chance to read a review copy of the first omnibus in order to see what the excitement was all about.

Seika High School, previously an all-boys’ school, has only been co-ed for a couple of years. The student population is still largely male—the boys outnumbering the girls four to one—and Seika High still has a bad reputation. And so Misaki Ayuzawa has decided to take things into her own hands, becoming Seika’s first female student council president in order to clean up the school’s act, improve it standing, and create a more welcoming environment for young women. Misaki rules over Seika with an iron fist, though not everyone appreciates her strength and intelligence or the changes she’s making. Because of that, she’s particularly careful to keep the fact that she works part-time at a maid cafe a secret; she doesn’t want to ruin her image or risk losing what little authority she has. But then her classmate Takumi Usui discovers how she’s spending her time after school. Misaki has caught his attention and interest, perhaps even romantically, though understandably she’s not very happy about the awkward turn of events.

Maid-sama!, Omnibus 1, page 34I absolutely adore Misaki. She’s a smart, strong, motivated, hard-working, competent, capable, and highly accomplished individual. She’s not perfect though. Her drive to overachieve and handle everything by herself along with her reluctance to rely on the help of others means that she frequently overextends herself, wearing herself down. Misaki could stand to relax a little, but the believable combination of her strengths and weaknesses make her the most well-developed character in the series. While I love Misaki, I am significantly less enamored with Takumi. Sometimes he can be a great guy, but on occasion he can be an utter creep. His skills and talents match and even surpass those of Misaki, often in superbly ridiculous ways which are admittedly amusing, but he seems to frequently be emphasizing that she’s a girl as if that somehow makes her inferior. I want to see the Takumi who supports Misaki for who she is and who doesn’t feel the need to dominate her. Early on in Maid-sama! it seems this would be a possibility, but the more of the omnibus I read the less likely it appeared that the series would be going in that direction.

Although in part Maid-sama! is a romance, ultimately that particular plot line in the manga is the one that interests me the least. (If I actually liked Takumi more than I currently do, I would probably feel differently.) I enjoy the series most when it focuses on Misaki as she grows as a person. I like seeing her become less of a tyrant as the president as she learns to consider other people and their needs instead of completely overruling them without making an effort to hear their concerns. At first she is disliked by almost all of the students, but as time passes more and more of them, male and female alike, come to admire, trust, and appreciate her and where she is leading Seika High. Although there are certain things about Maid-sama! that bother me—most notably the distinct possibility of Takumi being idealized as a romantic lead—overall I did find the beginning of the series to be entertaining and a lot of fun. And since I do like Misaki so incredibly well, at this point I definitely plan on reading more of Maid-sama!.

Thank you to Viz Media for providing a copy of Maid-sama!, Omnibus 1 for review.

Skip Beat!, Omnibus 1

Creator: Yoshiki Nakamura
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421542263
Released: March 2012
Original release: 2002-2003

The first omnibus volume of Yoshiki Nakamura’s manga series Skip Beat!, published in 2012 by Viz Media, collects the first three volumes of the original English-language release—all three of which were published under the Shojo Beat imprint in 2006. In Japan, the first three volumes of Skip Beat! were released between 2002 and 2003. Currently, Skip Beat! is the only manga by Nakamura available in English and it is the series for which she is best known. In addition to the original manga, Skip Beat! has also been adapted as a drama CD, a twenty-five episode anime, a live-action television series, and even a video game. Skip Beat! was selected as the topic of the June 2013 Manga Moveable Feast. I had previously read several volumes of the series and vaguely remembered enjoying them, but I was glad for an excuse to give the series a closer look.

Kyoko Mogami left home after graduating from junior high, following her childhood friend and love Sho as he pursues his career as an idol. Now living in Tokyo and working two jobs just to afford their apartment, Kyoko is happy as long as she can support and be with Sho. But then she finds out that he’s been taking advantage of her the whole time—he harbors no feelings of love for Kyoko and instead views her as a convenient if sometimes annoying maid. Betrayed, Kyoko is determined to wreak havoc on Sho’s life and take her revenge in the only way that he’ll deign to recognize: she has decided to enter show business. Kyoko has her sights set on joining LME, one of the biggest talent agencies in Japan and coincidentally home to Ren Tsuruga, and incredibly talented and successful actor who Sho hates. Kyoko doesn’t have a particular interest in show business, nor does she have any training, but what she does have is guts.

At the beginning of Skip Beat!, Kyoko’s life is consumed by Sho and her love for him. After his betrayal, her life continues to be consumed by Sho, but love has been replaced by hatred and vengeance. Sho’s a total jerk, so I can’t really blame Kyoko for her change of heart. At first Ren comes across as a jerk, too, but its really more that he can’t be bothered by people who don’t take show business seriously. This is why early on he and Kyoko don’t get along—he appreciates her guts and willpower, but dislikes her motivation to succeed. Kyoko is focused on making it big just to show up Sho. But as can already be seen in the first Skip Beat! omnibus, over time she starts to change. Initially she wanted to be a celebrity solely for the sake of revenge, but she is slowly gaining pride in herself and in her work for its own sake. Granted, getting back at Sho, and to a somewhat smaller extent Ren, is never far from her mind.

Kyoko is one hell of a character. She’s brash, stubborn, and determined. And she’s not the only one—Skip Beat! has many strong-willed and incredibly eccentric characters. I like Kyoko a lot. I appreciate a heroine who is willing to take control of her own life and work through her mistakes. Skip Beat! itself is a highly entertaining manga. With so many strong personalities involved there’s bound to be conflict and the results are very funny. The characters frequently end up in outrageous situations and their over-the-top reactions are priceless. Nakamura’s visual gags in Skip Beat! are great, too. Kyoko’s inner demons often make an appearance to spur her on and occasionally are even strong enough to affect those around her directly. All told, Skip Beat! is a tremendous amount of fun; I enjoyed the beginning of the series even more than I remembered.

Grand Guignol Orchestra, Volume 1: Overture

Creator: Kaori Yuki
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421536361
Released: October 2010
Original release: 2009

For the Kaori Yuki Manga Moveable Feast, I decided to take a look at Overture, the first volume in Grand Guignol Orchestra, the most recent of Kaori Yuki’s manga series to be released in English. The first volume of Grand Guignol Orchestra was originally published in Japan in 2009. Overture was subsequently released in English in 2010 by Viz Media under its Shojo Beat imprint. Although Yuki has had several of her works licensed in English, the only other manga of hers that I have read is Godchild. It took a while for that series to grow on me, but I ultimately enjoyed its dark, Gothic horror. However, I never quite got around to pursuing more of Yuki’s manga until Grand Guignol Orchestra was released. What particularly appealed to me about Grand Guignol Orchestra and convinced me to pick it up was its fantastical use of music.

As members of the Queen’s unofficial Grand Orchestra, Lucille, Kohaku, and Gwindel tour the countryside, journeying to places that the official orchestra wouldn’t dare. With the outbreak of the virus that causes Galatea Syndrome—transforming people into violent, doll-like zombies known as guignols—traveling is a dangerous endeavor. But it is the responsibility of the Grand Orchestra, even the unofficial one, to seek out and destroy the guignols and investigate the often bizarre circumstances surrounding the spread of the disease. The highly trained and capable musicians use their musical talents and a bit of combat training to annihilate the threat to the general population. Unfortunately, their people skills can be somewhat lacking and their help isn’t always welcomed by the people they are trying to aid. Guignols aren’t the only ones who pose a danger to the orchestra and its members.

Yuki’s artwork is one of the highlights of Grand Guignol Orchestra. She describes the series’ setting as taking place in the Middle Ages with a French flair to it (and with some very obvious anachronistic deviations.) The attention given to the costume designs with all their layers and frills is particularly marvelous. The guignols themselves also have a great design and are suitably creepy with their haunted eyes and cracking skin. In general, the artwork creates an excellent atmosphere for the Gothic tale. Unfortunately, it often seems at odds with the humor that Yuki attempts to introduce into the series. Although somewhat entertaining and a relief from the wonderfully melodramatic plot, the more comedic aspects of the series don’t seem to mesh quite yet with its darker elements. At times Grand Guignol Orchestra is deadly serious while at others it’s purposely ridiculous. The result can be awkward.

Considering how many elements there are in Grand Guignol Orchestra that I actually really like, I am very surprised that I didn’t enjoy the first volume more. I love the destructive and redemptive power granted to music in the series and get a huge kick out of the ability to take out zombies with a tuning fork. I also like the gender-bending aspects of the story and characters. Lucille, much to his dismay, is mistaken for a woman more often than not, but is generally happy to use this to his advantage. He’s not the only character who plays with gender, either. Overture is very much an introductory volume. Although the deliciously tragic pasts of the musicians have been hinted at, very little is actually known about them at this point and will be revealed later on in the series. But if I had to judge by the first volume alone, I would have to say that I appreciate and enjoy Grand Guignol Orchestra more in concept than I do in execution.

Sand Chronicles, Volume 1

Creator: Hinako Ashihara
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421514772
Released: January 2008
Original release: 2003
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

Sand Chronicles, Volume 1 by Hinako Ashihara was originally published in Japan in 2003. The English-language edition of the manga was initially published by Viz Media’s Shojo Beat magazine (issues twenty-six through twenty-nine) before being released as a collected volume in 2008. When September 2012’s Manga Moveable Feast focusing on Shojo Beat manga was announced, I immediately thought of the Shogakukan Manga Award-winning Sand Chronicles. One of the best contemporary shoujo series that I have ever read, Sand Chronicles is also one of my favorite shoujo manga period. The series is complete in ten volumes, although the main story finishes with the eighth. The final two volumes consist of epilogue-like side stories. While not absolutely critical for a satisfying conclusion, the “extra” stories round out the series and the characters nicely.

Twenty-six years old and about to be married, Ann Uekusa is preparing to move to America with her soon-to-be husband when memories from her adolescence come crashing back. After her parents divorced when she was twelve, Ann and her mother moved from Tokyo to the rural village of Shimane. Living with her grandparents in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business will take some getting used to, but Ann quickly makes friends with the other kids her age. After a rough beginning, she hits it off particularly well with Daigo Kitamura and even manages to befriend the more reserved Fuji Tsukishima and his younger sister Shika. Those friendships become even more important to Ann when tragedy strikes her family. The events that occur during the winter of Ann’s twelfth year will have profound effects on her for the rest of her life.

I am quite fond of Ashihara’s artwork in Sand Chronicles and find it to be very effective. There are two things she does particularly well in the manga. Her backgrounds, settings, and natural landscapes are beautiful and detailed, giving Shimane and the surrounding area a real sense of place. Ashihara captures the changes of seasons well, too, easily shifting from the snowy mountainsides in the winter to the summer storms in the woods. But perhaps most importantly, Ashihara’s art style allows her characters to be incredibly expressive. They show sadness and pain as well as laughter and joy. A glance or simple gaze can carry a significant amount of meaning even when the characters aren’t able to verbally express their feelings. This is particularly important in a series like Sand Chronicles in which the characters’ personal emotions and inner turmoil are just as important as their outward actions. Ashihara is able to convey and capture both the inner and outer aspects of the story and her characters through her artwork.

The overall tone I get from the first volume of Sand Chronicles is one of melancholy but not of overwhelming sadness. Sand Chronicles is a series that tugs at the heartstrings but at the same time I didn’t feel emotionally manipulated by it. This is one of the reasons that Sand Chronicles works so well for me. Some of the more climactic moments tend be a little melodramatic, but the emotions and feelings being expressed are honest and real. The characters, too, are well-developed and multi-faceted, even contradictory to some extent, lending to their authenticity and realism. They all have personal histories that explain their individual quirks and behaviors; they are who they are for a reason. Ann may exhibit strength, but she also shows signs of fragility, something that is true for many of the characters in Sand Chronicles. Their pasts inform their presents which in turn influence their futures, a theme that recurs throughout the volume and the series—something that Ashihara never forgets.