Is It Wrong To Try To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon?, Vol. 1

By Fujino Omori and Suzuhito Yasuda. Released in Japan as “Dungeon ni Deai o Motomeru no wa Machigatte Iru Darou ka?” by Softbank Creative. Released in North America by Yen On.

For those who see that title and roll their eyes, the commonly agreed on abbreviation, from the Japanese title, is ‘DanMachi’. We’ve seen a few of the cliched light novels with titles as long as their content in manga and anime format before, but this is really the first time we’ve seen one as a light novel. As you’d expect, the longer the title the more likely that this is a romantic harem comedy, and that’s true here. It’s also a fantasy, though, one closely connected to the world of role-playing games (though it’s not players trapped in a game, for once). I think that the fantasy gamers will likely find it easier to appreciate this title than the harem comedy fans, though both will find things to like and dislike. One thing I think everyone will agree on is that the cover blurb is pretty misleading: Bell stops being a ‘damsel in distress’ almost immediately.

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That is where we start, however. Bell is our narrator for most of the book, though it does switch off when the author wants to tell scenes without his presence to a third person style. He’s young and naive, wanting to become an adventurer in order to meet girls and get a harem, but he mostly wants that because this is what his grandfather (now deceased) taught him was the way of all things. In reality, he can’t catch a clue when it’s thrust in his face, really. The other protagonist is his sponsoring god, in this world where gods have come down to the real world and form gangs of adventurers to entertain themselves. Hestia has only one adventurer – Bell – but it’s clear that she just needs to mature. It’s also clear that she’s head over heels for Bell, and is somewhat frustrated at his lack of interest. As the book goes on we see more women – the big sister trying to convince Bell not to be stupid, the young waitress with an immediate crush on him, another goddess who wants him mostly to amuse herself – but it’s apparent from the start who the ‘lead girl’ is.

The fantasy aspect fares better, though I don’t really game so it’s possible I’m missing stuff. Bell fights increasingly tough monsters, and when he defeats them gets gems to exchange for money, or ‘drop items’ that might be useful. It honestly takes a little while to get used to the fact that this is meant to be a real world – adventurers have their ‘stats’ printed on their back in runes, for goodness’ sake. But the fights are well-written and go fast, and there’s a nice feeling of suspense to them. The book read very quickly and smoothly, which was nice, and lacks a lot of the self-important narrating we’ve seen in other books this year. There’s also a surprising lack of fanservice – surprising as the color artwork inside the front cover is filled with it. Hestia gets the nickname ‘loli big boobs’, which is unfortunate, but other than that the emphasis here is on the story for the most part.

I may have made this sound more interesting than it is – there’s nothing here that really gets me fired up for another volume. But it’s pleasant enough, and a nice quick read. Harem fans will be annoyed at the obliviousness of the hero and the possessiveness of the heroine, because they always are. Fantasy fans might be entertained by the ‘RPG in real life’ aspect, though, and may want to give it a shot. And fans of the Durarara!! light novels or the Yozakura Quartet manga will recognize the artist. It’s also available digitally, and an anime is due out soon.

Love at Fourteen, Vol. 1

By Fuka Mizutani. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Rakuen Le Paradis. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Sliec-of-life can be very difficult sometimes in the West, particularly if it also has romance in it. The genre tends to involve a laid-back quality, with lots of chapters devoted to normal kids doing normal things, and recalling the nostalgia of your teenage years. It’s the antithesis of a title like Naruto or Parasyte. But when done right, slice-of-life can bring a smile to your face, making you want to turn the pages faster so that you can bask in the warm glow of the cast’s feelings. Love at Fourteen is definitely slice-of-life done right; I lost track of the number of times I said “Oh my God, they’re adorable” about halfway through this first volume.

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The premise of this volume will not seem unfamiliar to readers of another Hakusensha series, His & Hers Circumstances. Kanata and Kazuki are both the most admired kids in middle school, both having an air of ‘maturity’ about them that sets them above the pack. Of course, that maturity is also what keeps kids from getting too close to them. However, the pair have a secret – they’re childhood friends, and have been “acting” mature as it’s expected of them, when frequently they want to do nothing but relax and let their emotions hang out. The troubles start when the class points out, independently, how gorgeous Kanata’s hair is, and how deep Kazuki’s voice is, things which had never really occurred to two young teens who have hung out for years.

And so they start to realize they’re in love with each other, and are not quite clear how to deal with it. What follows are a series of chapters with lots of heavy blushing, frustrated desires, and sweet reunions. The drama is minimal, mostly as these two don’t make their own drama. “Acting” mature has been the norm for so long that they find they’ve actually *become* mature. What’s more, it’s never stated outright, but I suspect like most Japanese middle schools open relationships are heavily frowned on, so all this has to be kept a secret, which is a pain when you’re having trouble keeping your hands off each other.

I had thought that there was going to be a bit of drama towards the end of the volume, as one of their trysts is observed by Nagai, the class troublemaker. However, before he can start an obvious blackmail attempt he is quickly caught up in problems of his own, stemming from the class music teacher, who’s trying to get him to stop being truant and start singing. I’m a sucker for teachers who can wrap teens around their fingers, and so this was possibly my favorite chapter, and I really hope we see the two of them in the next volume.

In the end, though, this is really Kanata and Kazuki’s series, and there’s an abundance of them to enjoy here. It’s early on, and we haven’t even had a first fight chapter. Things are developing slowly and sweetly, as you’d expect from two kids who’ve known each other so long and now have to redefine each other… and themselves. The book has little definitions interspersed throughout on puberty and developing a sense of self, and you can see our leads develop accordingly. Most importantly, after reading this you will have the biggest goddamn smile on your face you’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

Soul Eater Not!, Vol. 4

By Atsushi Ohkubo. Released in Japan by Square Enix, serialized in the magazine Shonen Gangan. Released in North America by Yen Press.

I had thought that this was the final volume of the series, but apparently not, as there’s an unscheduled Vol. 5 that is likely waiting for a sufficient distance from the Japanese release. It’s unclear whether the plot of the manga will follow the anime, which had already finished (with Ohkubo’s advice) before this ended. That said, we have here a manga that still has the same problems which the first volume possessed, but is also adding some new ones, such as whether a typical ‘yuri’ fan is supposed to enjoy the series or be really pissed off about it, and how much serious plot you can have in a moe slice-of-life type manga before it really starts to feel out of place.

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Please note that by yuri fans I mean MALE yuri fans, the sort who would be quite happy to see the pairings end in a threesome, and who aren’t put off by the chapter of Meme running around naked that we see here. That said, fanservice isn’t everything, and I think most modern yuri fans are finding that the traditional tease just isn’t enough. Kim and Jackie are another good example – there’s lots of suggestion here that Jackie is in love with Kim, and some hints that Kim might one day return it… but this takes place before Soul Eater, where Kim and Ox become a couple. There’s no there there, it’s done solely to be ‘cutesy’ in a harmless way. Likewise, anyone who thinks that the ‘who will Tsugumi choose?’ plotline might actually involve genuine love and emotion has to be appalled at the aforementioned scene with the girls trying to sleep on a very hot night, which, fanservice aside, seems to show off the ‘immaturity’ of the girls for those who want a safe out.

That said, the other suggested romance in the series, that of Tsugumi and Akane, also seems to have vanished, and the manga is happily settling into focusing solely on our three heroines. There is also, among the jokes and 4-koma, a suggestion of the deeper ongoing plot. Eternal Feather is still recovering from her brainwashing two volumes ago. More importantly Meme’s memory issues, which have been used for comedy to this point, are getting to be a bigger and bigger issue, one that causes genuine concern. The final scene of the book is heartbreaking, as Tsugumi tears into Meme for what she sees as an annoying quirk (Tsugumi dealing with grief over a dead pet right now), but then stops seeing Meme expressing real sadness that she forgot something important again. It’s been vaguely implied she’s a mole for the villain, and I wonder if this is connected to that.

Soul Eater Not! is doing its best to try to appeal to a broader otaku market here, but it feels too pandering, to be honest, and could use more seriousness and heart. It still has some strengths – Anya has developed into the most sensible character of the bunch, and is a far cry from the tsundere princess she started as – but really, Soul Eater fans are better off with Soul Eater, and moe/yuri fans can find material that will give them better jokes and a better payoff than I expect this to have.