Remina, by Junji Ito

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Publication date – December 15, 2020

Summary: An unknown planet emerges from inside a wormhole, and its discoverer, Dr. Oguro, christens the body “Remina” after his own daughter. His finding is met with great fanfare, and Remina herself rises to fame. However, the object picks up speed as it moves along in its curious course, eliminating planets and stars one after another, until finally Earth itself faces extinction… Is the girl Remina the true cause of the catastrophe? A masterwork of horror from Junji Ito, unfolding on a universal scale.

Thoughts: Ito has earned his reputation as a master of horror manga. His artwork alone can disturb and disgust, but the stories he tells linger with readers, the two combining to create a sense of unease and dread in the dark of night, memories of what was just read creeping back in to fill the hours with shuddering discomfort. There’s something about his work that never ceases to thoroughly unnerve me, whether the horror of the story is related to a dread supernatural presence or the darker side of human nature.  Remina ticks all the boxes that I’ve come to expect in one of Ito’s works.

When a new planet is found, the scientist who discovered it decides to name it after his daughter, Remina. Remina is a shy woman, but finds herself thrust into the spotlight after this, becoming the darling of the media and gaining thousands of ardent fans. But the planet keeps moving ever closer to Earth, posing a threat not just with its proximity but also with its very very strange and creepy surface, and Remina the person is the one blamed for the threat, with people adamant that she, or her family, somehow summoned the planet and caused it to approach Earth. Mass panic grows as the danger looms ever nearer, and neither Remina nor her father may come out of the ordeal alive…

While the planet Remina definitely is a sinister force to be reckoned with in Remina, as it does things that planets are definitely not supposed to do, I found the greater horror to be the way people latched onto Remina the woman as a scapegoat, blaming her for all the ills befalling humanity. Now, it seemed that the planet itself was feeding into humanity’s dark side through all of that, almost feeding on the desperate fear and anger that people felt, even tricking them into approaching it with false promises of safety from the chaos happening on Earth, but frankly, no supernatural force needed to be exerted in order to get people to blame something convenient for their ills. Especially something they once loved; Remina went from a much-beloved idol to a hated pariah in short time, fans turning on her as they felt betrayed by what they assumed she did. You don’t need to bring the paranormal into it, to tell that story. We see it around us all the time, especially when crisis looms.

Remina delivers horror on two levels, and that’s not even taking into account Ito’s unique art style, which can be just as disturbing at times as the story itself. He’s particularly good at illustrating body horror and the grotesque, both of which feature here; if body horror is a trigger for you, then be cautious when approaching Ito’s work. Remina had less of that than other works, at least in terms of “the human body doing things human bodies are not meant to do,” but similar to how one of the frightening aspects of the story was the realistic aspect rather than the supernatural, there are depictions of broken and bleeding bodies in here, some of which involve characters being tortured.

If body horror and violence are not trauma triggers for you, however, and you’re in the mood for something visual and disturbing to bring additional shivers to the approaching winter season, then get your hands on a copy of Remina as soon as you can. It’s delightfully disturbing and tremendously troubling, balancing the weirdly supernatural with the weirdly mundane. It’s a story I won’t soon forget.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Witch and the Beast, vol 1, by Satake Kousuke

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Publication date – October 27, 2020

Summary: Guideau: a feral girl with long fangs and the eyes of a beast. Ashaf: a soft-spoken man with delicate features and a coffin strapped to his back. This ominous pair appears one day in a town that’s in thrall to a witch, who has convinced the townsfolk she’s their hero. But Ashaf and Guideau know better. They have scores to settle, and they won’t hesitate to remove anyone in their way…

Thoughts: I’ve talked before about how touchy I can get when witches appear in media. “Witch” is still used as a soft replacement for when adults want to say “bitch” but don’t want delicate child ears to hear a naughty word. Witches are Halloween costumes, monsters in fairy tales. Witches are teen girls who discover empowerment for the first time but then get slapped down when they discover that goddess-worship comes with fantastical powers and a steep price. More recently, “witch” has become an aesthetic term, a sort of “I wear dark clothes and am a strong independent woman,” descriptor.

Why take exception to a lot of this? Because a witch is a practitioner of a particular religion or umbrella or religions, and yeah, it kind of stings to see my own religious practices and terminology get misused. It’s not exactly, “We’re a culture, not a costume,” but it is, “We’re a religion, not a costume, cautionary tale, or clothing style.”

I do, however, tend to make exceptions when the term is used in secondary-world fantasy, even when the witches there are purely negative characters. That world isn’t this world, it has its own dynamics, and I also tend to assume that any fantasy world I’m reading about does not have the English language and all of its history and connotations, and so everything is being “translated,” in a sense, for the reader’s benefit. Sometimes you go with the closest term that already exists. Sure, you could use the word fsnargletump to describe the same thing, but when you’ve got a convenient word your readers already understand, why not use it?

Besides, witches in fantasy worlds don’t tend to be, you know, part of a legitimate religion.

In The Witch and the Beast, witches hold great magic power and generally use that power to abuse those weaker than them, causing mayhem and destruction and all manner of badness. Guideau and Ashaf are part of a guild that hunts down the magical evils of the world and eliminates them. Guideau has a personal vendetta against witches in particular, intent on finding and destroying the witch who cursed her some years ago. Their attention is directed to a witch who might be the one who cursed Guideau, but rather than finding a vicious tyrant, they find instead a young woman who seems to be the darling of the town, who helps others rather than hurts them.

That’s how this volume starts, though the story does progress a bit past that first, “Let’s figure out what’s going on with this witch,” encounter. And I have to say, it subverted my expectations more than once, which was rather nice. I expected a bunch of the story to involve Guideau being convinced that she was wrong to hate all witches, that witches are really just misunderstood, etc. But no, even the nice witch has a lot of darkness to her, and cheerfully uses people as pawns when it suits her whims. I’ve said before that sometimes stories can be notable for what they don’t do as much as what they do do, and The Witch and the Beast set me up to think one rather stereotypical plot twist was going to happen, only to toss it aside for something else.

I didn’t see it coming, so I will give it that. Ironic, seeing as how what I didn’t see coming was something Guideau had been saying all along. It’s funny the traps of assumption that we can get into, when we’ve seen enough stories play out. Even as we hope for something a bit different, we tend to assume that things will play out as we’ve come to expect, and then get surprised when we’re actually given something else.

I swear, reading manga makes me reflect more on myself as a reader than it does on the manga itself, sometimes…

Either way, the story within The Witch and the Beast is compelling enough that I want to continue reading to see where it all leads. I want to know more about Guideau’s curse, about the witch that cursed her to begin with, about just what the heck is up with Ashaf. We might not get to see much of them in a single volume, but there’s enough to convince me that there are interesting things ahead in the story, enough hints dropped that things in the next volume will be something worth reading. The subject matter and art can be a bit disturbing at times (I won’t say it’s not for the faint of heart, because I’ve definitely see more graphic violence in manga, but be warned that there is blood and violence aplenty in here), but nothing that particular stuck with me beyond the moment. I’m counting that as a good thing.

So overall, a pretty good start to a series, and one I’m looking forward to continuing when I get my grubby little hands on the second volume.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Venus in the Blind Spot, by Junji Ito

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Publication date – August 18, 2020

Summary: A “best of” collection of creepy tales from Eisner award winner and legendary horror master Junji Ito.

This striking collection presents the most remarkable short works of Junji Ito’s career, featuring an adaptation of Rampo Edogawa’s classic horror story “Human Chair” and fan favorite “The Enigma of Amigara Fault.” With a deluxe presentation—including special color pages, and showcasing illustrations from his acclaimed long-form manga No Longer Human—each chilling tale invites readers to revel in a world of terror.

Thoughts: If you’re into the weirder side of Japanese media, you’ve probably heard of Ito’s work before. His is the mind and art behind Tomie, Uzumaki, and dozens of other titles that are distinct in style, notable for the merging of beauty and grotesque. It’s not a stretch to put his work firmly in the Weird genre; I mean, Uzumaki is a horror story about a town slowly being overrun by a deadly obsession with spirals. It sounds almost silly, but it’s actually rather horrific, and Ito’s art doesn’t dip toes into the uncomfortable so much as it jumps in and splashes around for a while.

Venus in the Blind Spot is a collection of shorts, most of which are rather horrific, and even the one that’s a little more amusing and autobiographical (Master Umezz and Me) still comes off as a bit creepy due to the level of obsession displayed. Some, such as The Human Chair are based on short stories written by others, and adapted to manga form by Ito. You have ones like The Licking Woman, which sound exactly like a horrible urban legend come to life, complete with a twist that sort of makes sense for a monster story but also lacks context… kind of like a lot of monster stories, especially ones told around the campfire.

But then you get stories like An Unearthly Love, in which a woman discovers that her husband is having an affair… with a sex doll that he keeps locked in a trunk in the attic. In a fit of jealous rage she destroys the sex doll. Later, she finds her husband has killed himself so that he and his ceramic lover can be together in the afterlife. It’s a whole load of WTFery that was nevertheless entertaining to read.

I did stumble a bit over How Love Came to Professor Kirida, though. The best way I can sum up that story is: a woman is in love with a misanthrope who rejects her. The woman tries to drown herself in grief, but lives. The professor is then convinced that the woman’s spirit is haunting him. Also, a parrot might be the conduit between here and the afterlife. Maybe. It’s really not clear. I feel like perhaps the story it was based on might shed more light into the confusing aspects, perhaps something just got missed in the jump to a different medium, but this one didn’t really hold together that well, and honestly, it was mostly because of the parrot. Was it an actual astral haunting? Was the parrot just really good at imitating people? Both? Something else entirely? I couldn’t say. I was kind of just left confused by this one.

But overall, this collection of shorts definitely has some of the best that Ito has to offer, and is a good way to experience his work without committing to the more famous multi-volume works. If you’re a fan of Ito, or if you just want to give some Weird J-horror a try, then Venus in the Blind Spot is a good place to start.

Just… be warned if body horror is a problem for you. He does that stuff a lot.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Blue Flag, volume 1, by KAITO

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Publication date – April 21, 2020

Summary: An unexpected love quadrangle with a dash of unrequited love as two classmates, a boy and a girl, begin to fall for each other when each of their best friends have already fallen for them.

For some reason, Taichi Ichinose just can’t stand Futaba Kuze. But at the start of his third year in high school, he finds himself in the same homeroom as her, along with his childhood friend Toma Mita, a star athlete. But one day, Futaba opens up to Taichi and admits she has a crush on Toma. She then asks for his help in confessing to him! There’s just one problem—Toma seems to already have a secret crush on someone else.

Thoughts: Futaba has a crush on Toma. Toma has a crush on Taichi, but thinks that Futaba has a crush on Taichi. Futaba’s best friend Masumi has a crush on Futaba. So far I think the only one who doesn’t have a crush on someone else is Taichi. So, to sum up, we have one guy with a crush on a guy, one girl with a crush on a girl, one girl with a crush on a guy, and one guy who doesn’t seem to have a crush on anyone.

I’m rooting for everyone to end up in a stable group relationship by the end, I seriously am.

I knew from the moment I saw the description of Blue Flag that I wanted to read it. The whole, “but Toma has a secret crush on someone else,” made me wonder if that person was Taichi, and I deliberately went and looked up spoilers to see if I was right. I’ve mentioned before that I keep wanting to read manga with queer characters, but so many BL stories are problematic that I keep getting burned out and disappointed. But Toma’s crush on Taichi instantly made this one stand apart, because that one crush wasn’t the whole of the story. It couldn’t be. Not with Futaba in the mix. I went into this series with some spoilers in hand, wanting to see how it all played out, to see if this presentation of queerness was any better than most of the others I’d encountered.

What I didn’t expect was to have a bonus wlw relationship thrown in the mix! So as much as this manga seems to be playing out like a contemporary high school romance story, it’s already got me more invested than other titles, because there’s a mix of straight and not-straight love going on.

I can really relate to Futaba. Shy, earnest, awkward, generally a loner most of the time because people are scary and weird. Taking out the adorable earnestness, I was pretty similar in high school. And Touma is exactly the kind of person I would have developed an impossible crush on, because he’s considerate and popular and if someone like that had deigned to say kind words to me, I would have definitely felt a pull to them.

Taichi, too, was an interesting character. At first it seems like there’s no much to him, that he’s a “just another face in the crowd” kind of guy, one who doesn’t seem to have much direction in life and is a bit disillusioned with things, not seeing what the point of anything is. But the more he got to know Futaba, the more it seemed like he started questioning that aspect of himself. If shy, awkward, “nobody likes her” Futaba can have hobbies and interests like gardening, for instance, then why doesn’t he? If someone people think nothing of other than to put them down can still have passions in life, then what’s stopping him? It feels as though him seeing an unpopular person still have more of a life than him made him stop and reconsider some things, and that was pretty good to see. Especially in manga, because so often I see the “go home club” type characters glorify their laziness and then often end up having massive story arcs and being Chosen One type characters instead. I get that the point is to emphasize the “zero to hero” bit, but in a more realistic setting, it’s actually somewhat refreshing to see someone go, “Maybe I ought to reconsider what I’m doing with my life,” after seeing someone else have fun with theirs.

I can’t say too much about Masumi yet, because her character shows up rather late in this volume and I haven’t had as much time to learn about her as I have the other three. But she does bring an interesting dynamic to the romance, that’s for sure!

There isn’t too much more I can really say about this first volume of Blue Flag. As a contemporary romance, there isn’t some great big world-changing story arc or anything filled with action and tension. It’s slow-paced, a rather relaxed story, but that does mean that the first volume doesn’t contain too much to discuss. Taichi starts to help Futaba get more comfortable talking to Toma, questions his life decisions, learns some things about his new friends, and that’s it. Even the reveal that Toma likes Taichi and Masumi likes Futaba is a short scene between only Toma and Masumi, so that aspect of the love, er, quadrangle hasn’t really been brought into play yet. It exists almost passively for the moment, though I’m hoping that picks up some in the second volume.

Which I’m absolutely going to read, by the way, because as I said, I’m invested in seeing how this definitely-not-straight romance situation plays out. There’s how I want it to play out, how I half expect it to play out, and possibly a third option in there for how it all might go down, but I’m very curious to see it happen, because I haven’t encountered any manga that attempt to tell a queer love story alongside a straight love story without it basically being very much yaoi or yuri, and at that point, you know how it’ll turn out because of the genre. This has so many variables, so many unknowns, and that mystery is what keeps me wanting to read more.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

A Gentle Noble’s Vacation Recommendation, by Momochi, Sando, & Misaki

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Publication date – August 11, 2020

Summary: When Lizel mysteriously finds himself in a city that bears odd similarities to his own but clearly isn’t, he quickly comes to terms with the unlikely truth: this is an entirely different world. Even so, laid-back Lizel isn’t the type to panic. He immediately sets out to learn more about this strange place, and to help him do so, hires a seasoned adventurer named Gil as his tour guide and protector. Until he’s able to find a way home, Lizel figures this is a perfect opportunity to explore a new way of life adventuring as part of a guild. After all, he’s sure he’ll go home eventually… might as well enjoy the otherworldly vacation for now!

Thoughts: The isekai genre is a pretty popular one, and for storytelling reasons, it’s easy to see why. Someone from one world magically ends up in another one, and it’s a great way for characters to drop a whole load of world-building exposition on the newbie. It’s a good way to get readers to relate to the protagonist, since the reader is just as ignorant about the new world and gets to learn and grow alongside the main character. Usually this is done with someone from this world getting teleported into a new world, whether that world is a pure fantasy world, the world of a video game, or something based on history but with a twist.

In A Gentle Noble’s Vacation Recommendation, we have a character from a secondary world getting plopped down into another secondary world, which, honestly, is something I don’t think I’ve really seen done before. It instantly removes the intended relatability from the main character, since the reader can’t approach the story from the perspective of, “I know the same things as this person because we grew up in the same world.” (Even though, if I’m honest, that relatability is often just a shell; lots of people grow up in this world and can’t understand or relate to each other; the biggest way readers tend to relate to protagonists in isekai stories is through their shared ignorance of the new world, which we tend to interpret as being alike because we’re from the same world.) The main character of this manga, Lizel, comes from a world that’s as much a fantasy to us as the one he randomly finds himself stuck in.

This leads to a bit of an awkward beginning in the manga as we don’t know what Lizel’s world is like or in what ways this new world is different to him. Both worlds seem to involve magic, so him trying to buy a magic bag with infinite capacity isn’t weird or unreasonable in either his world or the new one. But he’s pretty tight-lipped about what his own world was like, so A Gentle Noble’s Vacation Recommendation seems at first less like an isekai story and more like an instance of a resourceful person dealing with some degree of amnesia, or just someone who had spent their life very sheltered. It’s difficult to tell sometimes which areas of Lizel’s ignorance are because he’s from a different world, or because he’s just encountering things in life that he hasn’t encountered before.

The world he ends up in seems rather like a generic fantasy video game. There’s a ranked adventurer’s guild, where people sign up and take quests for profit, like killing ten rats outside of town. Some weapons are only found as loot at the end of dungeons. It’s always weird to me to see ideas like this outside of video games, though logically, there’s no reason they should fit into a video game’s world any more realistically than a world portrayed in any other medium.

Which brings me to what I consider A Gentle Noble’s Vacation Recommendation‘s strongest point: getting the reader to question preconceived notions. Why is something more believable or acceptable in this form as opposed to that form? What qualifies something to be considered this instead of that? Why do we relate to some protagonists we often have absolutely nothing in common with them? As I read through this manga, I found myself hitting stumbling blocks, and then being prompted to consider why they were stumbling blocks to begin with. Was it a flaw with the manga and its story, or was it just that I’d come to expect things to be a certain way and instead was being given something other than the typical presentation?

I very much want to continue with this series. It gave me some good food for thought, and I enjoy the way Lizel and his bodyguard/tour guide Gil interact with each other, especially since they both guard so many secrets about their respective lives. (Also want to see if the slashy vibe I’m getting off them is actually leading to something or is just there for the fanservice.) The story’s progression revealed that there are connections between Lizel’s original world and the new world he ended up in, so I want to know how that aspect of the story is going to develop. Apparently this manga is based on a light novel, so I’m sure I could just go look up the answers to my questions, but I’d prefer to keep reading the manga for now and be surprised as I go.

I think fans of isekai stories could like this one a lot, if they go in with the understanding that they’re not going to get stereotypical isekai fare. It hits a lot of the same points, but also is its own unique story. It’s a good one for those who enjoy their manga with a strong fantasy flavour, but who are also looking for a combination between the “fish out of water” story and the “rich noble who can do what they want” story. I’m intrigued, and I really do want to follow A Gentle Noble’s Vacation Recommendation to its conclusion; my interest has been piqued, and I’m not about to let it lie.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

There Are Things I Can’t Tell You, by Mofumofu Edako

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Publication date -June 17, 2020

Summary: Kasumi and Kyousuke are polar opposites when it comes to personality. Kasumi is reserved, soft-spoken and shy; Kyousuke is energetic and has always been popular among their peers. As the saying goes though, opposites have a tendency to attract, and these two have been fast friends since elementary school. To Kasumi, Kyousuke has always been a hero to look up to, someone who supports him and saves him from the bullies. But now, school is over; their relationship suddenly becomes a lot less simple to describe. Facing the world ― and one another ― as adults, both men find there are things they struggle to say out loud, even to each other.

Thoughts: I don’t know what it is, but there are a lot of BL titles where the main characters are in high school. Usually their final year of high school. So it was nice to actually see a title where the two of them have graduated high school, have jobs, succeeding at adulting, all that stuff. I don’t know why such titles seem like rarities; maybe I’m just not looking in the right place, or maybe it’s because high school stories are still so appealing. The moment right before childhood ends and adulthood starts, that balance of responsibility and carefree youth; I can definitely see why it would appeal to many. Heck, I enjoy a good high school story every now and then. But they come with a sort of implication that unless some things happen to you in high school, they’re never going to happen at all.

There Are Things I Can’t Tell You sidesteps that quite handily by having the characters be in their 20s. Pretty easy, that.

So. Kyousuke is in love with Kasumi, has been for a while now, but hasn’t told him because he can’t find the right words, or the courage to overcome potential judgment. The two are good friends, sharing an apartment together, though there are ways in which they don’t get along. Like any friends, really.

Only there was a moment where Kasumi confessed his love for Kyousuke. Kyousuke, though, responded by becoming afraid that his desire to be around Kasumi, to be close to him, gave him the wrong idea and confused Kasumi about the difference between friendship and love.

I mean… What?

I get that Kyousuke was trying to suppress his own feelings while still trying to be around Kasumi as much as possible, but come on! My dude, if you can figure out that you’re in love with someone, surely they can also make that decision for themselves. You don’t get to tell them, “You’re just confused and don’t actually feel that way.” You don’t get to tell people how they feel. Or if you’re going to stick with that, then why do your own feelings not get examined, why do you not spend days telling yourself that you’re not really in love with Kasumi, that you just misunderstood what friendship was?

(And yes, I know he says later that he was trying to protect Kasumi from being “corrupted” by queerness the way he was, but it was still one of those moments that came across as painfully hypocritical and shortsighted, and the fact that this hypocrisy wasn’t even addressed in his internal monologue made me wonder if the mangaka even noticed it to begin with…)

Not going to lie, I almost gave up on the manga at that point. There were a few things it did that were problematic, and your mileage may vary on this, but those things are pretty common in BL manga. It can be easy to overlook as just being a part of the subgenre, in some ways. I’m kind of used to overlooking them and not dwelling on them because honestly, if I focused too hard on them I’d probably never read queer-oriented manga again, and I keep doing so, hoping to come across volumes with fewer things I consider problematic. So I pushed on.

(Though I’m starting to feel like I could write an entire post about the problematic stuff that keeps cropping up in BL manga and why I am so very over it…)

I ended up getting being pretty torn on what I thought of it in the end. It did some things I like, such as having the characters be adults with their own lives and jobs and passions. There was also a good message in there about mistakes not being the end of the world, that things might look like they’re going badly but there might still be something salvageable from it, or the chance to use it to advance even further later on. But it also did things I didn’t like, such as the, “They’re in love but don’t know it, now there’s angst, they spend a night together and will probably be happy, but oh no, we should break up because it’s better that way, but oh look, now they’re back together again!” narrative.

It was… okay, I guess. It was on par with a lot of BL on the market, I think, so if you enjoy a lot of those titles, you’ll probably also enjoy There Are Things I Can’t Tell You. It was kind of sweet in places, and I admire Kyousuke’s work ethic and passion, as well as relate to Kasumi’s shy insecurity. But I don’t think I can really recommend it on any strengths, or on its ability to stand out from other titles. And I think, in the end, that’s really what I’m looking for these days. Something to stand out, something to make me interested and invested, and not just give me the same story I’ve already seen a dozen times over.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Fox and the Little Tanuki, vol 2, by Tagawa Mi

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Publication date – August 18, 2020

Summary: After 300 years, the gods that imprisoned Senzou the Fox Spirit for his arrogance finally set him free. There is only one condition ― he can’t have any of his supernatural abilities back until he successfully helps a tanuki cub named Manpachi become one of their magical assistants. Unfortunately for Senzou, there’s no cheating when it comes to completing his task! The magic beads around his neck make sure he can’t wander too far from his charge or shirk his duties, and so… Senzou the once-great Fox Spirit must now figure out how to be an actually-great babysitter to a mischievous little tanuki or risk being stuck without his powers forever!

Thoughts: The first volume of The Fox and the Little Tanuki had many things to say about the consequences of rejection and repression, and I quickly grew to think of the story as something akin to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Something that’s ostensibly for kids, but also has surprising depth to it, things that adults can enjoy and stand to be reminded of every once in a while, and more to it than what’s on the surface. I found myself hoping that this would continue in the second volume. Happily, I wasn’t disappointed.

Manpachi has gone missing, tricked into vanishing by a sly and deceptive badger, Momoji, who senses that Manpachi will become powerful when he grows up and wants to set himself up as an ally to that strength. Manpachi is entirely unaware of this, thinking only that Momoji wants to be his friend and help reunite him with the family who rejected him at birth.

Once again I’m struck by how much this manga addresses the issue of people not being to blame for their own births. Or rather, how they shouldn’t be blamed; plenty of people blame Manpachi for his birth. He’s bakemono, he’s different, he’s an outcast, the energy needed to create him messed up the ecology of his home for possibly years to come… And he’s not actually at fault for any of that (that last one is revealed to be entirely untrue anyway), though people are happy to treat him as though he did everything deliberately, maliciously. Turning bakemono into scapegoats.

It’s one of the reasons I really enjoy Senzou as a character, even if he can be a jerk and practically desperate to deny that there’s anything good about himself. He’s faced that same mentality. Heck, he became the embodiment of it, taking an, “If they’re going to hate me for being destructive, then I may as well destroy everything,” approach to life for so long. But that’s part of why he was chosen to raise Manpachi to begin with. Not just as some sort of rehabilitation project; that could have been anything, really. But Manpachi has the potential to become just like Senzou, facing the same obstacles in life and risking the same brutal punishment that Senzou experienced, when his pain overwhelmed his reason and he became violent. Senzou’s got this job because he gets it. He knows what Manpachi’s life will be like, he knows that kind of pain. His job isn’t just to raise Manpachi to be a good person, a good tanuki. His job is to spare Manpachi the same pain he went through, by making sure he doesn’t walk the same path.

Or at least, that’s how I’m reading it.

I think this sort of story can resonate with anyone who’s spent time on the fringes of “acceptable” society. The blame, the stress, the internalizing of what everyone considers as your faults. The way pain can make you lash out — I liked finding out that Mikumo nearly lost his way and became angry and violent due to pain, not because I like knowing he was in pain, but because he found his way out of it. And also because his case shows that really, it can happen to anyone if they’re pushed in the right way; nobody is inherently evil. And there’s  the positive side of the manga’s themes, too. The friends and family you make, rather than the ones related to you by circumstance of birth. The way idealism can lead to great changes. The way one’s destiny isn’t fixed, but that change comes all the time, and how you handle it affects how life goes from there. Nothing is ever destroyed, even if it changes beyond what you can easily recognize.

I’m really enjoying seeing Manpachi grow up with that idealism, and the guidance (albeit somewhat unwilling, at least at first) to avoid missteps. I enjoy seeing Senzou adjust to how his life is so very different from what he imagined it to be, and the way he’s learning to be better because people have placed their trust in him. I enjoy Koyuki’s weird hyperactive maternalism toward Manpachi, and the way she sometimes turns that on Senzou to amusing effect. I like the bond between Tachibana and Mikumo, and Tachibana’s doofy canine smile. I like Hagiri’s love of cats, and his loyalty to those who deserve it. I like the way the story of animals spills over into humanity, and the complications that brings to Senzou’s life and appointed task. I like the art style, I like the way a simple story can say so much that hits so hard.

I still maintain that The Fox and the Little Tanuki is the sort of story that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, in so many different ways. It’s got a lot to say about a lot of issues, and the fact that it chooses animals as allegory isn’t a reason to dismiss it as being too childish to pay attention to. I didn’t expect to have so much to say here, either in this review or my review of the first volume, but the manga itself has plenty to say, so I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’m already looking forward to volume 3, whenever that gets released.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

My Hero Academia, vol 1, by Horikoshi Kohei

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Publication date – August 4, 2015

Summary: What would the world be like if 80 percent of the population manifested superpowers called “Quirks” at age four? Heroes and villains would be battling it out everywhere! Being a hero would mean learning to use your power, but where would you go to study? The Hero Academy of course! But what would you do if you were one of the 20 percent who were born Quirkless?

Middle school student Izuku Midoriya wants to be a hero more than anything, but he hasn’t got an ounce of power in him. With no chance of ever getting into the prestigious U.A. High School for budding heroes, his life is looking more and more like a dead end. Then an encounter with All Might, the greatest hero of them all, gives him a chance to change his destiny…

Thoughts: I went into this one blind. I haven’t watched the anime adaptation. I knew pretty much nothing about the story. At most I’ve heard a few people mention some character names. The most knowledge I had was from reading the description of this volume on Amazon. I didn’t want to go into reading this with any particular opinion, despite the general popularity of the story.

And you know what? I can see why My Hero Academia appeals to so many people.

It’s an interesting premise that’s set up, very similar to X-Men, only taken to greater lengths. Instead of a small percentage of people with supernatural powers (known here as quirks), it’s a very large percentage of people. Nearly everybody has some sort of power, and has for generations. Most are small things that are useful but don’t necessarily put one into the “superhero” category. But for others, becoming a superhero is absolutely within their reach, as their quirk is something akin to what you might see in such comics.

Izuku is one of the few kids who never manifests any sort of quirk, which is an even greater kick in the pants when you consider that his lifelong dream is to become a hero. Without a quirk, there’s no way he would be considered for such a job, since being a hero is, in many ways, an actual job in this world. There is absolutely nothing special him whatsoever, except in his refusal to give up on his impossible dream.

Only the dream may not be so impossible after all, when the world’s greatest hero, All Might, reveals to Izuku that his own powers aren’t inherent so much as they were granted, given to him by another, and that Izuku’s heart and bravery have marked him as All Might’s successor. All Might’s gift allows Izuku to properly follow the path he has dreamed of since childhood, and his journey as a hero truly begins.

You can see the quick appeal in the “zero to hero” trope here. It’s one that resonates with a lot of people. Someone without any special talents or training ends up being given a huge gift that changes their lives and sets them on their true path, the path of their dreams. I mean, who among us hasn’t had that fantasy in our minds at some point? And in this early volume of the much larger story that is My Hero Academia, Izuku struggles to deal with the powers that he’s been given. They’re not a quick fix for his life’s problems, they don’t make everything so easily for him. He had to train his body almost to breaking point to even receive them, and one he had them, he had to adjust to gaining so much power so suddenly. Children in this world typically get their quirks as toddlers at the latest, and so growing up with a quirk means that it’s just a natural part of who they are. The whole thing is likened to suddenly having a tail. If you’ve grown up without one, you’re not going to know how to control it or move with it for a while. That’s the situation Izuku finds himself in, as he navigates this new world of hero-training he finds himself now a part of.

Some aspects of the art style don’t really work for me, but that’s not something that really prevents me from getting into the story. Even if I may have outgrown some of the, “I wish I could receive a huge gift that would set my life on track” mindset (only some, mind you), there’s a lot about this story that’s appealing. I want to see how Izuku grows. I want to see what happens beyond basic hero training, dealing with asshole bullies, and so on. I want to see more of the world develop. Given that the series has gone for many volumes at this point, it seems there’s a lot more of the story yet to come, and I’m curious as to how it all plays out. This first volume made me quite curious, and even if superheroes and a lot of typical shounen manga archetypes aren’t really my thing, I’ve got my sights on this story, and I hope I’ll be able to read more of it soon.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Fox and the Little Tanuki, vol 1, by Tagawa Mi

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Publication date – March 17, 2020

Summary: It is said that there are some special animals occasionally born with great powers. Senzou the black fox is one of those… but instead of using his powers for good, he abused his strength until the Sun Goddess imprisoned him for his bad behavior. Three hundred years later, he’s finally been released, but only on one condition― he can’t have any of his abilities back until he successfully helps a tanuki cub named Manpachi become an assistant to the gods.  Unfortunately for Senzou, there’s no cheating when it comes to completing his task! The magic beads around his neck make sure he can’t wander too far from his charge or ignore his duties, and so… Senzou the once-great Fox Spirit must figure out how to be an actually-great babysitter to a innocent little tanuki or risk being stuck without his powers forever!

Thoughts: From the title, you may initially dismiss this manga as being too kid-oriented to be worth paying attention to. And while it is clearly a manga designed more for younger readers than older ones, I think it would be a mistake to pass it over, because there’s actually a good entertaining story in here.

Senzou is a powerful black fox spirit, imprisoned for three hundred years, and finally set free by the very deity who initially sealed him away. But his freedom comes with one caveat: he must raise a tanuki cub, named Manpachi, to be a good servant of the gods. If he does this, he’ll be given full freedom. If he does not, then the magical beads he’s forced to wear around his neck cause him pain. Cruel? Yes. But Senzou did more than make mischief before he was sealed away; he was a force of destruction that took down anything in his path. This is not only only Senzou’s punishment, but also his rehabilitation.

And yes, there are definitely moments in here that will sound like focus points of a kid’s cartoon, like Manpachi coming to understand that family is more than just the people related to you by blood. And there are the expected struggles within Senzou as he continues to insist that he doesn’t really care for Manpachi, but I mean, come on, we know from the moment Manpachi is introduced that Senzou will come to think of him fondly because it’s just that kind of story.

But there were moments in here that really resonated with me, in a way that made me think there was more to this than a simple story for children. The first was the statement that bakemono (broadly defined in the manga as “animals with special powers”) are commonly born to regular animals, but bakemono are often quickly cast out because others sense there’s something different about them, something they don’t understand, and it scares them. It’s hardly an uncommon theme, but every time I see it pop up in fiction, it hits home. My parents never kicked me out or anything, but there have been so many times when I’ve been struck with the notion that there’s so much about me that I don’t think they understand. It doesn’t scare them, but I think it’s easy for them to pretend those parts aren’t really there, and so it feels like a rejection.

In Senzou’s case, that rejection by his parents was what started him on the path to becoming a bitter individual, someone who was rejected by those who ought to love him and so who rejects everyone else in turn. Now, I’m not saying every mean person is mean because their mommy never loved them enough, but to be perfectly honest, when you treat someone like they’re nothing, like they’re trash just because they’re not like you, you can’t be hugely surprised when they end up not giving a crap about you in turn. Or anything. You start them down that path, and they may end up okay in the end, or they may take that message very much to heart and lash right back out, and to some extent, that lashing out is entirely understandable.

Moving on…

The second part that resonated strongly with me was Senzou and Manpachi’s first task together, to get rid of a pestilence god that was plaguing an old run-down house, which was inhabited by the protective spirit of a child. Mistakes get made, but in the end, the pestilence god is defeated, and is revealed to be, of all people, the child spirit. He explains that he used to be worshiped at the house and in return gave his protection, but at some point he was locked up in a store room and couldn’t protect the house of the people within it anymore, and his frustration at being unable to fulfill his duties manifested in the pestilence god. It was another thing that really rang true with me, the presentation that there are consequences when someone can’t live up to themselves, when they’re prevented from doing what they’re supposed to do. Consequences beyond merely that thing not being done, that is.

That something negative can be born from the restriction of something positive is a lesson I wish more people could learn in life. Too often we just assume that if something positive doesn’t happen, then everything is just neutral. But in that vacuum can come negative things, unbalanced by positive, and that negativity can thrive. I feel like we all know that on some level, but we don’t seem to acknowledge it very often. If someone is held back from doing what they need to do, what they feel they exist to do, then the result isn’t just “someone not doing a thing,” but instead “someone not doing a thing and something harmful that results from it.”

Be good and true to yourselves and each other, is what I’m saying.

But all of this is why I think The Fox and the Little Tanuki isn’t a story that can be just dismissed by adults as being unworthy of attention because it’s geared towards kids. Similar to the way My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic resonated so powerfully with so many adults, I think The Fox and the Little Tanuki could do the same, appealing to that same part of our hearts that MLP:FIM did. Being ostensibly for children doesn’t mean that it has nothing to say to adults, and some small things turned into thought-provoking moments that made me really enjoy my time reading through this first volume of the story. Already I’m hoping it picks up enough steam for the publisher to think it’s worth releasing other volumes, because it’s a story I’m invested it, it has characters I’m interested in, and it’s a glimpse into aspects of Japanese mythology that many people, young and old, don’t always get the chance to see.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

RePlay, by Tsukahara Saki

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Publication date – February 4, 2020

Summary: Yuta and Ritsu have been playing baseball together since they were children, but after being defeated in a local tournament over the summer, they must retire from the high school team to study for university entrance exams. Still, Yuta finds himself unable to give up his lingering attachment to baseball. The one person who can truly understand him is Ritsu, who has been acting worryingly distant since they quit the team. But there’s something Yuta himself doesn’t understand… Does he think of Ritsu as his partner in the way that a teammate would, or is the affection between them something stronger?

Thoughts: As I mentioned in my previous manga review, I used to be into BL stuff a lot more than I am, before I realized that the genre contains a lot of problematic tropes that really made me uncomfortable. But still, every once in a while, I try again to rediscover my old interest in the genre, partly because I’m nostalgic, but partly because I want to read more stuff that has queer romances.

(Even if that can bring its own set of problems, depending on who’s doing the writing…)

Even though I don’t have any interest in baseball, there was something about Re:Play that called to me from the outset. I couldn’t say what. But I’m glad I did, because a lot of the tropes that I came to dislike over the years were pretty much absent from this standalone manga volume. Both Yuta and Ritsu are in their final year of high school, dissimilar personalities but great friends, to the point where people joke that they’re “an old married couple.” Ritsu is serious, Yuta is more happy-go-lucky. They both aim to get into the same university, though things are less secure in that regard with Yuta, since he still has his sights set on playing baseball, and his grades might not be good enough to get into his university of choice. The typical high school drama, essentially.


Also some great opportunities to make jokes about balls.

And how possibly for the first time, the terms “pitcher” and “catcher” are used un-euphemistically.

Ahem, moving on…

Typical, too, is the changing dynamic of their relationship once it’s revealed that Ritsu has been harbouring feelings for Yuta, and Yuta’s all, “Oh, okay, I guess that’s sort of what I feel for you too, only I didn’t really know it, but it sure does explain why I get jealous over the idea that you might have a secret girlfriend!” But it also touches on the idea that longtime friends can change as they grow up, and the worry that there might not always be a place for you in your old friend’s new life. Bittersweet as that is, I liked that the manga touched on that.

I mentioned that some common tropes were absent from Re:Play, and the most obvious one is that neither Yuta nor Ritsu are coded girls. By which I mean, there’s usually one of the pairing that’s decidedly more “feminine” than the other, to make it clear to the reader who takes which role in the relationship. Rarely have I seen BL manga that portrays guys who are written as any other guy would be, only in love with another guy. But Re:Play is one of those uncommon offerings that does this, and I loved seeing it. Yuta definitely has the less serious personality, but he’s a far cry from being feminine-coded, and it was great to see. Their budding romance was cute, without the trappings of outdated gender roles applied to the wrong gender.

Re:Play is definitely more on the BL side of things than the yaoi side, but there are some sexytimes in the manga’s final pages. It’s about as graphic as most yaoi, with certain parts being essentially consumed by a white void, but, er, you get the idea pretty clearly. It’s nothing over the top, and relatively tasteful, at least within the yaoi genre. Believe me, I’ve seen worse!

If you’re looking for a sweet BL story about two guys navigating the early parts of their romance while also navigating an life-altering period of their youth, and you could definitely do worse than reading Re:Play. Even if you’re not a fan of baseball, which is a big part of the characters’ lives, chances are you’ll still enjoy how Yuta and Ritsu enjoy it and how it plays into their lives. I was surprised at how much I ended up liking this one.

And if nothing else, maybe you too will become better at catching someone’s balls.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)