Sweet Blue Flowers, Omnibus 1

Sweet Blue Flowers, Omnibus 1Creator: Takako Shimura
Translator: John Werry
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421592985
Released: September 2017
Original release: 2005-2006

Takako Shimura is probably best known for two manga series. The first, and my introduction to her work, is Wandering Son, a series which sympathetically explores some of the challenges faced by transgender and gender non-conforming youth. (Wandering Son is an incredibly important manga to me personally and I will forever lament the fact that it will likely never be released in English in its entirety.) The second manga is Sweet Blue Flowers, another series with queer themes, this time focusing on bisexual young woman and lesbian teenagers. While the anime adaptation of Sweet Blue Flowers has been readily available in English for years, the publication history of Shimura’s original manga has been more fraught. Originally translated in 2012 as part of the failed JManga digital initiative, the first volume was subsequently released by Digital Manga in a less than stellar ebook version after which the series languished unfinished. Surprisingly, Sweet Blue Flowers would be rescued by Viz Media, making it one of the first yuri manga to ever be released by the publisher. The first print omnibus of the Viz Signature edition of Sweet Blue Flowers, collecting the first and second volumes of the series originally published in Japan in 2005 and 2006, was easily one of my most anticipated debuts of 2017.

Fumi Manjome and Akira Okudaira were very close as children but the two girls fell out of touch after Fumi’s family moved away. Many years later they meet again by chance while commuting by train on the way to their first day of high school. They don’t actually realize who the other one is at first, but soon Fumi and Akira’s friendship is rekindled and their relationship blossoms once more. Since they attend different all-girls schools they don’t get a chance to see each other as much as they might like, though. Even so, both Akira and Fumi are faced with some similar trials which bring them together–making friends at their new schools and finding an extracurricular club to join that interests them among other things–but not everything is the same for them. Although complimentary, the two young women have strikingly different personalities, resulting in drastically different experiences and interactions. And while Akira doesn’t seem to have put much thought into romance, Fumi has recently had her heart broken. But now Fumi has fallen for an older student at her school, Yasuko Sugimoto, a young woman who is interested in Fumi but who is also dealing with an unrequited love of her own.

Sweet Blue Flowers, Omnibus 1, page 92Shimura’s artwork in Sweet Blue Flowers is simple and refined, but is still able to carry the emotional weight and expressiveness of the story. The focus of the manga’s illustrations is almost entirely on the characters themselves. Except for when the actual setting is intended to make an impact, such as the hallowed halls of a prestigious school or the imposing home of a distinguished family, backgrounds are minimalistic and sometimes even non-existent. Just enough is implied to give readers an impression of place and location. This technique, along with Shimura’s use of light and shadow, is reminiscent of intentionally minimal set design used in some theatrical performances which in turn nicely echoes the high school stage production of Wuthering Heights featured prominently in the first omnibus of Sweet Blue Flowers. The characters’ involvement with the play is an important part of the series both aesthetically and thematically. The connections to theater and creative performance arts present in Sweet Blue Flowers can also be found in Shimura’s other work, including but not limited to Wandering Son.

Sweet Blue Flowers is a wonderful series. The manga is emotionally resonate, with a realistic portrayal of the experiences of young women who love other young women. The characterizations and character development in Sweet Blue Flowers in particular are marvelous. Shimura effectively captures the nuances of a multitude of personalities and how they interact with one another, showing both individuals and their relationships as believably layered and convincingly complex. Sweet Blue Flowers is a relatively quiet story, but the emotional drama is powerful and the manga conveys a compelling sense of authenticity and honesty. I am loving the series and find that I am completely invested in the lives and well-being of Fumi, Akira, and the other characters as they navigate their adolescence. Life and relationships can be challenging and messy, something that Shimura does not shy away from in the manga. The young women in Sweet Blue Flowers grow and change, gaining maturity through their mistakes and missteps as well as personal clarity as they slowly discover their own identities. Sweet Blue Flowers is a worthwhile and lovely work; I’m so glad that it’s finally receiving a proper release in English.

A Small Charred Face

A Small Charred FaceAuthor: Kazuki Sakuraba
Translator: Jocelyne Allen
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421595412
Released: September 2017
Original release: 2014

Kazuki Sakuraba is a fairly prolific author in Japan, having written numerous short stories, essays, and novels; sadly, only a small handful of those have been translated into English thus far. Although Sakuraba is probably best known as the creator of Gosick (which, I’ll admit, I still need to actually read), my introduction to her work was through Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuhchibas, an award-winning, multi-generational epic which I thoroughly enjoyed. When Haikasoru, Viz Media’s speculative fiction imprint, announced that it would be releasing Sakuraba’s A Small Charred Face with a translation by Jocelyne Allen in 2017, I immediately took note. I was previously unaware of A Small Charred Face, originally published in Japan in 2014, and I’m not especially interested in vampire fiction, but with Sakuraba as the author, Haikasoru as the publisher and Allen as the translator–a winning combination with Red Girls–it instantly became something that I wanted to read.

The Japanese town in which Kyo lives is bathed in blood, a hotbed of organized crime, murder, and vice. With a population willing to avoid looking too closely at the surrounding bloodshed, resulting in a plentiful and readily accessible supply of food, it’s the perfect place for the Bamboo, vampiric creatures originating from the deep mountains of China, to secretly coexist with humans. Carnivorous grass monsters but human-like in appearance, the Bamboo are extremely powerful and resilient but vulnerable to sunlight, never age but are still mortal. Up until the point he meets one, Kyo was never quite sure if the stories he heard about the monstrous Bamboo were true or if they were just told to frighten children. Confronted with the immediacy of his own impending death while only ten years old, his mother and sister having already been killed by a group of hitmen, Kyo is unexpectedly rescued by a Bamboo. Mustah, impulsively acting in blatant disregard for the rules of his own kind by taking him in, saves Kyos’ life and in the process changes it forever. But even while Kyo, Mustah, and Mustah’s partner Bamboo Yoji form a peculiar, tightly-knit family, it will never be entirely safe from the dangers presented by humans or the Bamboo alike.

At its very core, A Small Charred Face is about the curious, complex, exhilarating, and often fraught relationships that evolve between Bamboo and humans. The novel is divided into three distinct parts–three tangentially related stories which can all be connected to Kyo and his personal experiences with the Bamboo. In some ways the stories are able to stand alone, but the references they contain make them more powerful when taken together as a whole. The first and longest section, “A Small Charred Face,” focuses on Kyo’s life with Mustah and Yoji. The two men are fascinated and enthralled by his humanity, at times treating him as something akin to a pet but also raising him as family while protecting him through his adolescence. To Kyo, Mustah and Yoji are his saviors, parents, and something even more which is difficult to define. The second part “I Came to Show You Real Flowers” serves as an epilogue of sorts to the first, following another Bamboo who becomes incredibly important to Kyo as well as a young woman who plays a crucial role late in his life. Finally there is “You Will Go to the Land of the Future,” a story which delves into the history of the Japanese Bamboo. Linking back to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it traces the tragic origins of the Bamboo’s strained relations with humans and the strict, harshly-enforced rules implemented to guard their society and existence.

A Small Charred Face opens with the brutal aftermath of the rape and murder of those close to Kyo with him facing a similar fate. It is a horrific, gut-wrenching scene, but the story that follows becomes surprisingly beautiful. Though still punctuated by moments of extraordinary violence and devastating heartbreak, A Small Charred Face is a relatively quiet and at times even contemplative work. The relationships shown are intensely intimate, with love, desire, and devotion taking on multiple, varied forms. The characters struggle and frequently fail to completely understand one another–the worldviews, life experiences, and fundamental natures of humans and Bamboo occasionally at odds–but the strength of the connections that they form regardless of and in some cases because of their differences is tremendously compelling and affecting. There’s also an inherent queerness to the stories that I loved. It’s perhaps most obvious through Yoji and Mustah’s partnership and the fact that Kyo spends a significant portion of his life presenting himself as a girl for his own safety, but many of the novel’s essential underlying themes explore found family, the need for acceptance, and what it is like in one way or another to be a hidden outsider within society. While A Small Charred Face resides firmly within the tradition of vampire fiction, Sakuraba’s contemporary take on the genre is still somewhat unusual and unexpected; I enjoyed the work immensely.

Thank you to Viz Media for providing a copy of A Small Charred Face for review.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Volume 1

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Volume 1Creator: Akira Himekawa
Translator: John Werry
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421593470
Released: March 2017
Original run: 2016

Akira Himekawa is the joint pen name of A. Honda and S. Nagano, two women who have been collaborators for over thirty years. The two-person creative team is probably best known for their work on the manga adaptations of The Legend of Zelda series of video games, although some North American readers may associate Himekawa with the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics as well. Despite being a fan of both franchises, I actually hadn’t made a point to read any of Himekawa’s work until after meeting the two women briefly at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in 2014. Twilight Princess is the most recent entry in Himekawa’s series of The Legend of Zelda adaptations. Initially Twilight Princess was intended to be a children’s series, but when the original 2006 video game it was to be based on became the first in the franchise to be rated for teens, plans for that manga were cancelled. It wasn’t until 2016 that Himekawa would begin serializing Twilight Princess digitally, the first volume subsequently being released in Japan in print later that year. Viz Media’s English-language edition of Twilight Princess debuted in print in 2017.

Link is a young man trying to outrun his past. A year and a half ago he wandered into the border village of Ordon, hiding his personal history in hopes of establishing a new life for himself. Ordon is idyllic, seemingly a perfect place for Link to retreat. The land is said to have been blessed by the spirits and the village is well-known for its bountiful harvests. Although Link arrived as a stranger, he was warmly welcomed by the villagers and has since become an integral part of the community. Link loves Ordon and its people, but there’s always a small part of him that feels like he doesn’t quite belong. He is still plagued by guilt over the tragedies of his past, dealing with a weighty feeling of responsibility which is impossible to ignore. Having experienced disaster before, Link may be one of the few who can prevent it from happening again. Most of the other people in the sacred kingdom of Hyrule are unaware of the looming threat that the long-forgotten Twilight Realm poses. It’s a danger that grows even greater when the ambitions of one man to rule both the light and the dark begin to come to fruition. As the shadows of darkness gather around Ordon, Link will have to face his past and his fears, confronting the possibility that he will once again lose everything that he holds most dear.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Volume 1, page 122Although I’ve played some of the original Twilight Princess, familiarity with the video game is not at all necessary to enjoy Himekawa’s adaptation. At least so far, the series can stand on its own as a work–the manga largely comes across as a freely-developed fantasy rather than a strict reimagining of a video game. Himekawa’s narrative in Twilight Princess is streamlined and quickly paced, incorporating elements of the original game in clever ways. Some of the wonder of having a world to leisurely explore and discover is lost as Twilight Princess is adapted into a different medium, but in exchange the manga emphasizes depth of characterization. As the protagonist, Link is generally the most fully-realized character. I really like Himkeawa’s multi-faceted interpretation of Link in Twilight Princess. While at heart Link is a troubled and brooding hero, he also exhibits happiness and joy and there are moments in the manga when his good-natured goofiness shines through. The Twilight Princess manga, much like the video game itself, is intended for a more mature audience than many of the previous incarnations of The Legend of Zelda. The story tends to be fairly dark and can be strikingly violent at times.

One of the things that I appreciate the most about Himekawa’s work on The Legend of Zelda manga is the creators’ ability to adjust their tone and style to fit the requirements of a given series. Himekawa’s skill and flexibility as artists can be seen as they move from one adaptation to the next, but can also be exhibited within a single manga. In Twilight Princess specifically there is a wonderful contrast between the serene, pastoral setting of Ordon and the ominous darkness and shadowy creatures encroaching upon it. The artwork in Twilight Princess is beautifully executed, ranging from the gorgeous to the grotesque as demanded by the story. In comparison, the storytelling itself isn’t nearly as strong. The first chapter of Twilight Princess in particular suffers from some awkward exposition and Link has a tendency to ask questions that he should already know the answers to having lived in Ordon for so long. Still, I do like the story, characters, and settings of Twilight Princess. In the past, Himekawa’s The Legend of Zelda manga have only been one or two volumes long. I would be surprised if Twilight Princess could end satisfactorily in such a short span, so I hope that the series will be longer to allow the story to unfold more naturally; I enjoyed the first volume of Twilight Princess a great deal and look forward to reading more.

Thank you to Viz Media for providing a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Volume 1 for review.

Midnight Stranger, Volume 1

Midnight Stranger, Volume 1Creator: Bohra Naono
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421579689
Released: April 2016
Original release: 2013

Midnight Stranger is the third boys’ love manga and the first series by Bohra Naono to be released in English. Naono’s first manga to be translated was Yokai’s Hunger which was initially released in print by Media Blasters but is now available digitally through Sublime Manga, the boys’ love line associated with Viz Media. Sublime also released Naono’s second manga in translation, Three Wolves Mountain, which along with Norikazu Akira’s Honey Darling was actually one of the publishers’ debut titles. Midnight Stranger is a short, two-volume series, the first of which was published in Japan in 2013. In English, Midnight Stranger, Volume 1 was released by Sublime in 2016. Like Naono’s other translated manga, Midnight Stranger has strong supernatural elements which can be fun but rather peculiar, a fair amount of comedy, and Naono’s penchant for older men. I’ve enjoyed Naono’s work in the past, so I was very glad to have the opportunity to receive a copy of the first volume of Midnight Stranger for review.

Midnight Stranger, Volume 1 contains two major storylines which aren’t directly related to each other but which could conceivably take place in the same setting. The volume opens with the titular “Midnight Stranger” and its followup chapter “Love-Hate” which are about Roitschaggata, a minor goat spirit, and Xiuhtecuhtli, an old and powerful god of fire. (The two are also the focus of the volume’s bonus chapter, “The Point of a Day Off.”) Centuries ago, due to the ugliness of his original form, Roi was mistaken for a monster rather than the benevolent spirit of healing that he is. He was nearly burned alive by a mob of humans, but was saved and granted more appealing looks by Xiu. The two of them now live together in modern-day Japan—Roi utterly devoted to his god, and Xiu oddly fond and possessive of his adoring servant. The second storyline collected in Midnight Stranger, and the basis for the four-panel comics included at the volume’s end, is “Hollow Romance,” a manga about a seemingly innocent young man named Takara Mori who is both more and less than he seems and the literal demons surrounding him.

Midnight Stranger, Volume 1, page 25Although I’ve somewhat come to expect it from Naono’s manga, the supernatural aspects of Midnight Stranger are all over the place and the worldbuilding isn’t necessarily cohesive. Xiu is based on an Aztec deity, Roi I believe is inspired by Swiss traditions, “Hollow Romance” incorporates Nordic legends, and there is a variety of other mythological beings present in the manga as well. It’s never really explicitly explained why all of these deities, demons, spirits, and legends from vastly different cultures and geographies are interacting with one another, but clearly in Midnight Stranger gods and beliefs aren’t restricted by countries or borders. The unexpected combinations, while seemingly haphazard, can be surprisingly entertaining, though. But while Naono has taken inspiration from multiples sources, which is something that I enjoy about her work, her interpretations are very much her own and frequently very little of the original tales remain. Xiu, for example, retains his name and has an appropriately fiery temper and flashy personality, but otherwise his connection to Mesoamerica is largely nonexistent.

Humor is also prominent in Midnight Stranger, though in tone the manga does shift between comedic and ominous. Granted, there is plenty to find amusing or ridiculous in Midnight Stranger, such as Xiu making his living in the mortal world as an idol or Roi gaining a young boy he cured as a best friend and confidant. Roi is actually the source of quite a bit of the humor in Midnight Stranger. He has a complex about his appearance, not realizing how adorable his new goat form is or how attractive he is as a human. He’s also apparently a little slow in recognizing that Xiu has feelings for him—readers aren’t privy to the hundreds of years of the extremely tedious evolution of their relationship, just the time period in which Roi finally figures it out and the heated sex that follows. Whereas Roi and Xiu’s story becomes more comedic as it progresses, Naono takes the opposite approach with “Hollow Romance” which becomes increasingly darker and grotesque, all while still maintaining a sense of humor. I particularly liked “Hollow Romance,” but I am curious to see what lies in store for Roi and Xiu in the next volume of Midnight Stranger.

Thank you to Viz Media for providing a copy of Midnight Stranger, Volume 1 for review.

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 3

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 3Creator: Aya Kanno
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421582597
Released: January 2016
Original release: 2015

Aya Kanno’s manga series Requiem of the Rose King has quickly become one of the releases that I most look forward to from one volume to the next. I’m not particularly surprised by this, though—I’ve enjoyed many of Kanno’s past works, and she has proven to be quite versatile when it comes to genre and style. In the case of Requiem of the Rose King, Kanno has taken direct inspiration from the historical plays of William Shakespeare, more specifically the Wars of the Roses cycle consisting of Henry VI and Richard III. Even if Kanno hadn’t been involved with the manga, this would have been more than enough to catch my attention. But Kanno is involved and she brings her own touches to the story, giving it a dark fantasy-tinged atmosphere in addition to exploring gender and identity in an interesting and engaging way. With all of that and more, I have been completely taken with Requiem of the Rose King, and so was glad when the third volume of the series, originally released in Japan in 2015, was published in English by Viz Media in 2016.

The battle has been won and the House of York reigns victorious, but the struggle for the English crown continues; the war is far from being over. The deposed King Henry seems content to wander the countryside, the weight of rulership lifted from his shoulders, but the rest of the Lancasters are plotting to return their family to power and reclaim the throne. The hold that the newly established King Edward has on the England is in more peril than he realizes. In addition to the threat that the Lancasters pose, there are others among the nobility who are againt the House of York’s usurption of the throne. The widowed Elizabeth Woodville is prepared to take advantage of Edward’s womanizing ways in order to bring about his and his family’s downfall; besotted with Elizabeth, he puts his own desires before the security of the kingdom, risking the loss of the support of France. His younger brother Richard is one of the few people to recognize the danger, but Richard isn’t yet in a position to avert the potentially calamitous outcome.

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 3, page 68I continue to be fascinated by Kanno’s interpretation of Richard, a young man who has been irrevocably harmed by the the rejection and hatred of his mother who sees him and his body as imperfect and demonic. He has a difficult time connecting with people because of the anxiety surrounding his self-identity, an issue made even worse by the recent death of his father on the battlefield. Henry is a perfect foil for Richard and is in many ways his opposite, which throws Richard’s perception of himself and of the world into confusion. Richard has resigned himself to loneliness and darkness, even while Henry seeks his company. The two men spend a fair amount of time together in Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 3, neither of them knowing who the other truly is and that their families are enemies. Much as Edward and Elizabeth’s relationship may doom the kingdom, Richard and Henry’s awkward friendship can only result in tragedy with far-reaching consequences.

Personal strife is mixed with political turmoil in Requiem of the Rose King, each feeding into the other as events unfold. With multiple people expressing interest in obtaining the crown, whether in jest or in all seriousness, the social structures and relationships among the English nobility have become extraordinarily precarious during a time of tenuous peace. This underlying chaos is also reflected in how Kanno approaches the story of Requiem of the Rose King. Many times several scenes overlap with one another, tied together thematically rather than chronologically. Pasts, presents, and possible futures all intertwine and are simultaneous revealed. This can be somewhat disconcerting at first and at times challenging to follow, but I do like the overall effect and drama that it brings to the series, emphasizing the individual characters’ experiences as memories, reality, and visions merge together. Requiem of the Rose King has an almost dreamlike quality to it and I find that I fall more deeply under its thrall with each passing volume.