Monday, May 26, 2014

Cherry Juice by Haruka Fukushima

Title: Cherry Juice 
Author: Haruka Fukushima
Volumes: 4 (completed)
Volumes (English): 4 (completed)

After five awkward years, stepsiblings Minami and Otome are finally getting along, even giving each other romantic advice. However, when Minamis best friend confesses his love for Otome, suddenly the siblings peaceful relationship takes an unpredictable turn, making them wonder with whom they are in love.

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Skip to the bottom for final thoughts.

I liked the concept of this series, which explores the familial bond between step-siblings. The premise of the series is that Otome and Minami are step-siblings who basically love each other in a romantic way. While Minami has always felt this way about Otome, she's never really questioned her own feelings towards him. The four volumes focuses primarily on Otome as she fully becomes self-aware of her feelings for Minami. There is also some focus on Minami as he tries to deal with his apparently one-sided feelings for Otome.

The series had an opportunity to delve into an area that I think society ignores. Just because your mother or father remarries doesn't necessarily mean that the feelings you'll have for a step-sibling are platonic. In many cultures it's taboo to date a step-anything. Coming from a family where my father married multiple times each time acquiring new stepchildren (only to cut out from his life the stepchildren of marriages that didn't work out), I could relate to the awkwardness of multiple families coming together and the oddity of acquiring new stepsisters and stepbrothers.

Instead of exploring this issue in a manor even approaching mature, this series is a haphazard collection of loosely related events that alternates between melodrama and comedy (or what passes as comedy). There's barely a plot and the character development is nonexistent. Supporting characters are either telling the siblings to hook up or shaming them for their feelings. The weird thing is, it's the same characters doing this seesaw commentary. There is very little consistency.

It's hard to feel for Otome or Minami, and the supporting characters really aren't developed enough to feel one way or the other about them. I hated Otome's boyfriend, Amane, who acts possessive and childish in his dealings with Otome. Of course Minami pretty much acts the same way, so it was hard to care about which guy she ends up with. I suppose I rooted more for Minami, but I think that's just because he actually has some character development.

Final Thoughts

I found it hard to relate to any of the characters. There is very little character development and only the two main characters, Otome and Minami, have even a modicum of depth. The story itself has little substance and it doesn't even try to handle a complex subject in a serious way. Overall, I think this series is a missed opportunity. It had potential to explore an area that is ignored in mainstream media. Instead it treated the subject as one big joke.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Strobe Edge by Io Sakisaka

Title: Strobe Edge
Author: Io Sakisaka
Volumes: 10 (completed)
Volumes (English): 10 (completed)

What is love, anyway? Ninako Kinoshita’s friends tell her it’s one thing, but Ninako wonders what this mysterious feeling really is. When she meets Ren Ichinose, the handsome, enigmatic guy that all the girls worship, her life takes an unexpected turn. With just a few words and a smile, he changes her world...

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This actually manages to be a somewhat spoiler free review, but only somewhat, so skip to the bottom to avoid spoilers.

Strobe Edge quickly became one of my favorite shojo manga series. While it wasn't love at first sight, my love for the series grew with each new release. One reason this wasn't a case of instant love is that the plot isn't overly original -- girl likes guy, guy has girlfriend thus forming a love triangle, guy's best friend falls for girl, after a breakup guy falls for girl, dissolving one love triangle only to form a new love triangle, at which point guy's best friend's ex girlfriend enters the picture forming a sort of love square.

What makes this a stand out series isn't the plot, but the character development which is phenomenal. The characters have depth and real emotion that isn't an exaggerated version of the emotion the author is trying to express. The characters feel real, like ordinary people you might meet one day. I think what I like best about the characters is that they're all decent people just trying to make it through life the best they can. I didn't hate any of them. This is a rare phenomenon in shojo, where love rivals are often drawn in a dark light.

I wanted all of them to have a happy ending, something that I doubted could be achieved based on the characters' conflicting desires. (Weirdly, at one point I wanted Ren, Ninako, Andou, and Mayuka to form one large group and just all date each other as a group. It was the only way I thought there could be any chance at a happy ending for characters that I genuinely cared about.) Luckily, Io Sakisaka actually manages to deliver both a believable and happy-ish ending for all characters involved and she didn't have to resort to my brilliantly stupid idea of group dating.

The other issue I had with the series is the artwork. Although it does steadily improve throughout the series, there were times, early on in the series, when I would confuse the female characters because of how closely they resemble each other. Particularly, with regards to Mayuka, Sayuri (Sayu), and Ninako. This caused some confusion in volume two when Sayu confesses her feelings to Daiki. I had to re-read the panels because for a moment it looked like Mayuka, Daiki's sister, was confessing her love for him. (There are brother complexes and then there are brother complexes, and I did not sign up for a Flowers in the Attic relationship when I picked up this series.) The good thing is that the artwork does improve and the female characters become more defined and individualized by the end of the series.

Another aspect that saves this series from being just another shojo, is the secondary characters and complex subplots. While the main story focuses on Ninako and Ren there are other stories being weaved throughout the narrative that add depth to the series. One such subplot focuses on Daiki and Sayu's relationship. Their relationship has major hurdles to overcome and the way they handle each issue is honest. In some ways Daiki and Sayu are dealing with the more serious side of being in a relationship while Ninako and Ren's relationship is still in its infancy.

Ninako is a heroine that's impossible to hate. She's genuinely kind and her optimism in the face of unrequited love is refreshing. She's happy to be in love and holds tight to the feeling even when she knows Ren is unavailable. She doesn't sulk and try to manipulate any given situation. She accepts here feelings and embraces them without trying to force them on Ren. (If I had to put a song to her feelings I'd assign Frou Frou's "It's Good to be in Love.")

I think that's one of the reasons Ren is able to eventually fall for her when he does become emotionally available. Speaking of Ren, I genuinely liked him as a hero. While he is somewhat reserved, he's also honest and doesn't send mixed signals to Ninako while he's dating Mayuka. In the series he attracts every girl, because that's how it is in shojo, but he doesn't take people's feelings lightly and he doesn't toy with people's emotions.

One of the things I liked about the series is the way in which Mayuka and Ren ended their relationship. There wasn't ridiculous amounts of drama and hatred for each other. Instead, there's a natural gradual decline in their relationship where they eventually realize they're at different places in their lives and what they once got from being together wasn't there anymore. It doesn't mean it wasn't painful for them, but it didn't have melodrama. It's honest and quite beautiful in its own way. You could tell that they still cared about each other and wanted the other to be happy even though they knew they wouldn't be the ones doing that for each other anymore.

I also liked how friendship is portrayed in this series, especially between Ren and Andou. They have a history that's a bit painful and watching them rebuild these tenuous bonds of friendship is quite lovely. There's a sense that history is repeating itself when they both fall for the same girl and I was honestly worried that their friendship may not be able to suffer another blow. One of the reasons I think it was able to hold fast is because of Ninako. She's not the type of person to allow herself to become a bone of contention. Even as Andou is essentially asking her to use him to get over Ren, she doesn't take him up on his offer. She actually cares about their friendship.

I adored Andou. His character is a bit jaded and his heart's been bruised, but he's fearless in love. He falls for Ninako, and even though he knows she's crushing on his friend he pursues her and is just so damn sincere in his feelings for her. He fights for her affections until the very end, even when it's obvious Ren and Ninako are both into each other. I think what I find so moving about him is that when he sees Ninako is being hurt by the obligations of his affections, he lets her go. And while he needs space after Ren and Ninako get together, it's obvious they're all going to remain friends. There is also a hint that his ex-girlfriend, Mao, and Andou may eventually get together again.

I really liked Mao by the end of the series. I love when she challenges Andou in the last volume and declares a sort of storming of his heart. After watching him fight so hard for Ninako she's going to give it her all and fight for him. His reaction was perfect. Her story is almost one of redemption and I can't help but hope that it works out for them and that second chances are possible.

The ending to Strobe Edge is perfect! It tied so well to the rest of the series, even alluding back to important moments from Ren and Ninako's interactions in earlier volumes. I also love the scene in the last few pages of the volume, when Ninako and Ren have just gotten over a misunderstanding and you see their different thought bubbles. It had me laughing because they're thinking such different things in that moment.

The extra story at the end of the volume featuring Manabu was precious. Manabu is a wonderful character who doesn't get as much face time as the other characters, so it's refreshing to read something from his perspective. Throughout the series he's playing cupid to Ren and Ninako and has no clue that as he tries to bring two of his friends together, he's kind of interfering with his other friend Andou's bid for Ninako's affections. Scenes that featured him generally had me smiling. What made the bonus story about him so great is that it adds another layer to his character. Generally, he's the happy-go-lucky sort of character, but with the bonus story you see that not everything is that simple.

Final Thoughts

I love this series! While the artwork has some issues in the early volumes and the plot isn't unique,  the character development is amazing. They are three dimensional and fully developed characters rather than stock caricatures. There is strong emotion throughout the series without it becoming melodramatic. Foremost, the characters are believable and it's easy to relate to Ninako's unrequited love, Andou's cynicism, Sayu's insecurity, Mayuka's drive, Ren's reservedness, and Mao's quest for redemption. (There isn't really a character in this series that I didn't relate to on some level.)

The author also does a good job of exploring relationships, from it's inception to it's eventual end. And not just romantic relationships, but friendship and even familial as well.  I recommend this to those who like Kimi ni Todoke, We Were There, Say I Love You, and Ao Haru Ride.

Side note:

In general Strobe Edge has some of the best bonus stories that I've read in a shojo. One stand alone story called "Colorless Dreamer" is especially good. The main character Rena could be a grown up version of Ninako, they look so similar, but the story is moving. It's in volume six if you're interested in reading it. Also, Ao Haru Ride, Io Sakisaka's current project, is shaping up to be an even better series than Strobe Edge, so check it out if you haven't already.