Yashakiden: The Demon Princess, Volume 1

Author: Hideyuki Kikuchi
Illustrator: Jun Suemi

Translator: Eugene Woodbury
U.S. publisher: Digital Manga
ISBN: 9781569701454
Released: January 2010
Original release: 2007

Yashakiden: The Demon Princess, Volume 1 is the first novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi that I have read. The fine folk at Digital Manga, which released the English translation in 2009, discovered that I had never read anything by Kikuchi and were kind enough to send me a sampling of his work. Kikuchi is probably best known for his series Vampire Hunter D. The reason I decided to read Yashakiden, another vampire series, first is that the author himself considers it to be even better than Vampire Hunter D. Also, the cover art by Jun Suemi, who also provides the interior illustrations, is marvelous. Yashakiden was originally written in 1997 and the edition that Eugene Woodbury’s English translation is based on was published in 2007. Yashakiden currently has four volumes available in English, equivalent to the first six Japanese volumes since books three and four are omnibus editions.

Ever since the Devil Quake, Demon City Shinjuku has become a corrupt and sordid place. Cut off from much of the outside world, the city serves as a sort of safe haven for the paranormal. Demonkind and humankind live side by side in a very precarious balance. The arrival of four ancient and powerful Chinese vampires who want to control the city for their own purposes threaten to upset that balance. It is up to two of the city’s most dangerous, feared, admired, and talented residents to stop them: Aki Setsura, senbei shop owner and skilled private investigator, and Doctor Mephisto, also known as the demon physician. If the two men hope to save their city from the greatest evil it has ever faced, they will first have to put aside their differences and work together.

Yashakiden features not one, but two unnaturally beautiful, supernaturally inclined protagonists. In fact, both Aki and Mephisto’s primary characteristic seems to be how gorgeous they are. Kikuchi never misses an opportunity to remind the reader of their beauty, although it is generally stated rather than being described in any depth. This goes for many of the vampires, too. Personally, I need my characters to be more than paranormal pretty boys to really engage me in the story. (Not that I have anything against pretty boys; quite the contrary.) Fortunately, there are some glimmers of hope towards the end of the first volume of Yashakiden that they will actually be interesting characters after all. The mystery that Kikuchi has shrouded them in is frustrating because it seems like the author is simply withholding information from the readers rather than there being anything inherently mysterious about the men.

I don’t know if it is the fault of the original Japanese or the English translation, but for the most part the writing in the first volume of Yashakiden is pretty terrible. It does get better as the novel progresses, but even towards the end of the book there were turns of phrases that honestly made me cringe. Often, the narrative would even deliberately contradict itself for dramatic purposes. However, the more depraved or grotesque a scene, and often this was the same thing, the better the writing was. It could actually be quite good. The bloody, far from vanilla sex scenes that seem to come out of nowhere are fine examples of this. I should note that the portrayal of women in the novel isn’t particularly flattering. Granted, many of them are vampires, but still. Fortunately, they are somewhat balanced out by Takako, who is more than just a sex fiend. Despite some of my misgivings I will be reading the next volume of Yashakiden and probably more after that. I really like Demon City Shinjuku and much of the world-building. It seems like the story could get very interesting very soon.

Thank you to Digital Manga for providing a copy of Yashakiden: The Demon Princess, Volume 1 for review.

Finding Manga: Akadot Retail

If you’re a fan of yaoi, I’m sure that you are already well aware of Digital Manga Publishing. But did you know about its affiliate Akadot Retail? For the longest time I didn’t, but now it’s my go to place when I’m looking to buy a title published by Digital Manga.

Of course, Akadot Retail actually sells much more than just manga from Digital Manga, including merchandise directly from Japan, art supplies, artwork, and more. Poke around the site a little and you’ll see what I mean. A lot of what they sell is outside of my personal areas of expertise, and so I’ll just be talking about finding and buying manga here. More specifically, I’ll be covering the manga available in English. Akadot Retail carries and imports plenty of Japanese manga, but my Japanese isn’t good enough yet to take advantage of that.

While many people hear “Digital Manga” and automatically think “yaoi manga,” the company actually publishes plenty of non-yaoi material, and non-manga material for that matter. This is also available to purchase through Akadot Retail. For example, I picked up quite a few volumes of Berserk (which Digital Manga co-publishes with Dark Horse Comics) from Akadot Retail. Akadot Retail also stocks a limited amount of manga in English from other publishers; oftentimes these titles are out of print or otherwise hard to find.

The prices Akadot Retail are some of the best that I’ve seen. This is especially true for the Digital Manga titles, which is understandable, but it is not limited to those. The discounts can be tremendous—there are plenty of books available for only $4 and hundreds that are 50% or more off their cover price. And this isn’t just the backlist I’m talking about here—even the newer titles are available at a significant discounts. Often, the newest books from Digital Manga are available at Akadot Retail before they’re available at other retailers, sometime even months in advance. Akadot Retail also puts together some nice bundles. One of the best ways to stay up to date with current sales and newly available items is to sign up for Akadot Retail‘s weekly newsletter.

For some reason, the search function at the Akadot Retail website does not work nearly as well as I want it to. I don’t really trust the searches at this point—I’ve done too many for books that I know are in the catalog that aren’t returned in the results. Fortunately, the catalog is small enough, and organized well enough, that it’s not too much trouble to simply browse. Unfortunately, you’re not able to browse the entire catalog all at once, but must start in a specific category. I don’t believe it is possible to search by creator on Akadot Retail (except for a couple of select creators who have earned their own categories in the catalog), but titles, product names, and ISBNs all seem to be indexed. I also appreciate being able to sort by Name, Discount, Price, or Newest.

One trick that I’ve discovered to finding things on Akadot Retail is to actually use the Digital Manga website since they are integrated to a small extent. Any book that is available to order from Akadot Retail has a link included towards the bottom of its description page. Additionally, it’s possible to search by creator on the Digital Manga website. Of course, this trick only works for books published by Digital Manga. You won’t be able to find titles from other publishers available at Akadot Retail using this method.

Free shipping is available for orders placed in the United States that reach a specified dollar amount. However, the target price changes on an irregular basis (today it’s $40, but I’ve seen less). Because of this, when I’m thinking of placing an order at Akadot Retail, I always make sure to check the amount that currently qualifies for free shipping on the FAQ page. Free shipping is only available in the United States, but Akadot Retail also ships internationally. Depending which country you live in, you may be limited in your payment options, but PayPal is always valid.

Quick Tips for Finding Manga at Akadot Retail
1) Remember, Akadot Retail sells more than yaoi, manga, and Digital Manga
2) The best place to get Digital Manga titles for the best price, and soonest
3) Sign up for the weekly newsletter to keep up with the latest deals and inventory
4) Browsing the catalog is often more effective than searching it
5) Check to see what the current target price for free shipping is

Stay Close to Me

Creator: Yaya Sakuragi
U.S. publisher: Digital Manga
ISBN: 9781569701423
Released: October 2010
Original run: 2005

Stay Close to Me is the third of Yaya Sakuragi’s works to be licensed in English. I happen to be a fan of Sakuragi (Her Hey, Sensei? was the first yaoi manga that I ever read) and so I was very excited for the release of Stay Close to Me and hope to see even more of her titles available in English. Stay Close to Me, originally published in Japan in 2005, was translated and published by Digital Manga under its Juné imprint in 2010. (Hey, Sensei? was also released through Juné while Sakuragi’s series Tea for Two was published as part of Tokyopop’s Blu Manga line.) I preordered Stay Close to Me as soon as I was able, even before I knew what it was about, simply because it had Sakuragi’s name on it. Unfortunately, there was a distribution mix up and so I actually ended up getting my copy over a month late. I was very happy to see it finally arrive and was very happy to finally have the opportunity to read more of Sakuragi’s work.

Stay Close to Me contains two stories. The first is the four act title story “Stay Close to Me” and the second is the shorter, two part “Play to Win.” “Stay Close to Me” follows Yuzu who is absurdly tall for his age and towers over his classmates, something he is terribly self-conscious of since this includes Icchan, his heart’s desire and “prince.” Icchan has looked out for Yuzu ever since the two were in elementary school together. Although he would wish it otherwise, Yuzu is resigned to being decidedly un-princess like due to his size and so concentrates on becoming the best homemaker he can for Icchan. Unfortunately, his single-minded devotion to his prince means Yuzu can be a bit oblivious and easily flustered when it comes to other people seeking his affection. In “Play to Win,” Ohga unexpectedly runs into Takatsuki, a brilliant former classmate of his. It turns out that Takatsuki has a bit of a gambling problem and Ohga agrees to let him crash at his place for the rainy season. But despite the problems Takatsuki causes for him, Ohga comes to realize he doesn’t want him to leave.

I have always been fond of Sakuragi’s lanky character designs and in the case of Yuzu, her style is a perfect fit. Not only is he obviously tall, but Sakuragi is able to capture his self-consciousness and physical awkwardness in his facial expressions and posture. “Stay Close to Me” is a little different art-wise than much of Sakuragi’s other work. In the author’s note, she mentions that she kept thinking to herself “shoujo manga” while working on it, throwing in more sparkles and flowers than she normally uses but to great effect. Stay Close to Me is definitely played as comedy and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. This is particularly true of the title story, but “Play to Win” also has its goofy moments. The humor is also evident in Sakuragi’s art with overly dramatic poses and panels accompanied by groan-inducing, ridiculous (but in a good way) dialogue.

One of the things I appreciate most about Sakuragi’s work is how she plays around with yaoi tropes and stereotypes. “Stay Close to Me” has an obvious reversal with an uke being untypically taller than his seme. But at the same time, Yuzu is still sensitive and prone to blushing. However, the princess can still take care of himself and, when the situation calls for it, his prince. The approach in “Play to Win” is more subtly different with the portrayal of its characters’ personalities and attitudes. Even though the story is short, Ohga and Takatsuki show a surprising amount of depth and come across as real people with both good and bad traits. At one point, Yuzu is described as being both hilarious and adorable, which I think is a pretty good description of the manga as well. Hilarious might be a little strong, but there is no denying that Stay Close to Me is funny, cute, and sweet. It is certainly the most comedic of Sakuragi’s work currently available in English. Stay Close to Me is not perfect, but I liked the story, loved the art, and adored the characters.

Brilliant Blue, Volume 2

Creator: Saemi Yorita
U.S. publisher: Digital Manga
ISBN: 9781569701003
Released: August 2009
Original release: 2005

After reading the first volume of Saemi Yorita’s Brilliant Blue I knew I would want to finish Nanami and Shouzo’s story. Fortunately for me, I had the opportunity to read a review copy of the second and final book. Brilliant Blue, Volume 2 was originally published in Japan in 2005, a year after the first volume came out. English readers were lucky to have both books of the series released only a few months apart in 2009 by Digital Manga under their newer DokiDoki imprint. While I wasn’t blown away by the first book, it was still a solid start to the series and I enjoyed it—I cared enough about the characters to want to see how things turned out for them. In addition, the small town aspect of the story continued to appeal to me, having grown up in a rural village myself.

Initially, Shouzo returned to his hometown to take care of the family construction business while his father recovered from a back injury. He had no intention of staying any longer than that required. Of course, he didn’t intend on falling in love with Nanami, either. And it turns out that Nanami has become quite fond of Shouzo as well. So he’s decided to stick around, at least for now, but realizes pursuing Nanami will be difficult at best. Living in a small town he knows their relationship will be impossible to keep secret from the neighbors, let alone their families. Already people are beginning to wonder why the two men spend so much of their time together outside of work.

In some ways, Shouzo’s behaviour towards Nanami is disconcertingly reminiscent to that of Douwaki from the first volume, something that is even remarked upon by another character. Fortunately he’s not nearly as selfish as Douwaki and truly cares for Nanami and his well-being. One thing that Yorita continues to nail spot on is what it’s like to live in a small town where everyone knows your business and rumors can spread like wildfire. Also stressed is the importance of family. Nanami’s relationship with his brothers is particularly well done and Shouzo’s parents are just great. But being so close to one’s family can also be problematic at times. While Yorita does a fantastic job with the portrayal of real relationships beyond just the main couple, I don’t find her artwork to be singularly exceptional. Which is not to say that it’s bad, because it’s not. In fact, she has some very nice and effective panel and page layouts that convey the emotional elements of the story quite well and her chibis are incredibly cute but not sickeningly so.

While technically the second volume of Brilliant Blue could be read apart from the first, it really works better as a continuation of the story rather than a stand alone work. This is particularly evident in the development of Nanami and Shouzo’s relationship—without considering what has come before it would feel rushed. Even so, I was surprised to see how quickly their families accepted them as a couple (I will admit that was glad though). Although the main story concludes rather suddenly, a lengthy side story finishes out the volume. It’s actually quite nice, taking place about six months later when Nanami and Shouzo’s relationship is more firmly established and matured. Once again, I wasn’t blown away by Brilliant Blue but it is a heartfelt story that I thoroughly enjoyed. Yorita has a knack for creating emotionally authentic relationships for her characters.

Thank you to Digital Manga for providing a digital copy of Brilliant Blue, Volume 2 for review.

Brilliant Blue, Volume 1

Creator: Saemi Yorita
U.S. publisher: Digital Manga
ISBN: 9781569700990
Released: May 2009
Original release: 2004

Yaoi and boys’ love manga are fairly inundated with school romances, which I do enjoy, but sometimes I want to read something else. So, I was happy to discover Saemi Yorita’s two volume story Brilliant Blue which is not only about construction workers, but takes place in a rural small town, also something not often seen in the genre (at least in my experience). I believe that Brilliant Blue is currently the only title by Yorita available in English. Originally published in Japan in 2004, it was released under Digital Manga’s DokiDoki imprint in 2009. I’ve seen DokiDoki described as “The Gateway from Shojo to Yaoi” and Brilliant Blue‘s first volume fits this imprint nicely by focusing more on relationships rather than on sex.

Shouzo Mitani swore he wasn’t coming back to his hometown until he was at least 30, but when his father is hospitalized for a back injury he returns home to help run the family construction business. Not much has changed since he’s been away except for his old classmate Nanami—the once chubby, dim-witted kid has grown up to be quite the looker. He’s still a little socially awkward and has a difficult time reading, but Nanami is brilliant when it comes to numbers and electrical work. Everyone seems to get along well with him. Shouzo comes to value Nanami’s skills and friendship to a much greater extent then he ever did before he left town. Nanami, too, has grown close to Shouzo, becoming quite fond of him, but even still Nanami is trying to hid a painful secret and it’s starting to take its toll.

At first, I found Nanami to be annoying although by the end of the first volume of Brilliant Blue he was endeared to me. Just like the people in his hometown, I couldn’t help but like him and want to look out for him. Even Shouzo quickly succumbs to his charm. Their relationship develops slowly, but nicely. Nanami is easily manipulated and influenced by other people but Shouzo realizes this and is careful how he approaches Nanami; he is genuinely concerned for his well-being. Both men are very honest although in different ways: Nanami is innocent and takes things at face value while Shouzo has the tendency to just blurt out whatever is on his mind.

Yorita has done many things well with the first volume of Brilliant Blue. While remaining consistent in character design, the style of the artwork changes to suit the feel of the story—it is amusing when silly, serious when called for, and romantic when needed. Although I didn’t find the artwork to be particularly stunning, it was very effective and conveyed the story’s emotions quite well. Yorita also captures perfectly the sort of claustrophobia that can come from living in a small, close-knit community where everyone knows your business, sometimes even before you do. (I understand exactly where Shouzo is coming from, having grown up in a rural village myself.) I enjoyed the first volume of Brilliant Blue and found the story to be rather charming. Shouzo and Nanami’s relationship doesn’t happen in a vacuum and the two must consider the reactions of their families, friends, and the wider community—something Shouzo in particular is painfully aware of. I am looking forward to reading the second and final volume to see just where the pair end up.

Thank you to Digital Manga for providing a digital copy of Brilliant Blue, Volume 1 for review.