Wonder!, Vol. 1

By Akira Kawa. Released in Japan by Futabasha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Women’s Comic Jour. Released in the United States by Futabasha on the JManga website.

I got blindsided by this one a bit, I will admit. The blurb and cover made it sound a lot fluffier than it actually is, and also that it would be far more about the dog. Now, rest assured that Wonder (the dog) is a large part of this manga, but it’s not a manga *about* a family getting a new dog. That’s just the starting point. What Wonder! gives us is a manga about what it means to be a family, even if it’s non-traditional, and how bonds with other members of that family can affect how we grow and learn – even if we’re adults.

The author of Wonder! is Akira Kawa, an old-school shoujo and josei artist who’s been doing manga since 1968. In the 1970s she was a mainstay at Shueisha’s Margaret magazine, and now that she’s at the age where she can do whatever she wants, she’s at Futabasha drawing manga for their josei magazine for housewives, Jour. Her wikipedia page says that her manga seem to specialize in family, and it shows; this is a well-thought out work. It’s fairly clear from reading it that it was initially conceived as a one-shot; then another chapter was added later, and finally the last two chapters were put in before it got picked up as a ‘series’. This happens a lot, especially in shoujo manga. Thankfully, unlike other examples, we don’t have to be reintroduced to the characters every single chapter.

Wonder, it must be said, starts awkwardly. Its heroine, Kaori, is not particularly likeable at first. We see her drunk on a park bench, pouring out the plot – I mean, her heart – to a stray dog, who turns out to be the titular Wonder. She’s married to Taiyo, but according to her it’s an ‘open marriage’ where both of them are free to date other people. She may think this is what she wants, but it’s fairly clear watching the two of them that this is not making either of them happy. Things are further complicated by the arrival of the dog, who follows her home, and a 9-year-old boy, who arrives when Taiyo’s sister dies. Dies? Or was she killed? It turns out that the boy, Kota, may have seen something suspicious…

For a while I wondered what genre Wonder! actually was. The first chapter combines family drama with mystery, and sees Kaori slowly warming up to Kota, who she clearly did not want living with them at first. There’s also a bit of a supernatural element to it, but it’s very mild – Wonder has a sixth sense for people that can be similar to Lassie at times, and also seems to have lived long beyond what his natural life is. But ‘family drama’ sounds about right – despite the thriller and mystery aspects, this is at heart a story about a family trying to find its footing and deal with everyday life.

Kota becomes the second protagonist starting in Chapter 2, when the series moves forward six years. He’s now in high school, and has grown up to be the star of your typical high school shoujo manga – except he has no girlfriend. He’s just a nice, pleasant, vaguely aloof sort of fellow, good at sports and good at school, but not really understanding other people. (This runs in his family, of course.) The one girl he seems to have a crush on is one that he knows isn’t going anywhere – Kaori, who by now is pregnant with her first child. (This gets brought up a few times in the volume, but I don’t think it’s meant to be squicky – it’s the typical misplaced love bonding kids get sometime). The last half of the book sees him start to make friends… but not with who we think he will. This was the better written half of the book, with some genuinely surprising twists.

Lastly, there’s an unconnected short story afterwards, which is far more serious. It deals with a family whose teenaged son commits suicide. They are stunned, as they had no idea he was anything other than happy. As the mother searches for answers, she discovers that he had been bullied at school… and that bullying in Japan is as hard to prove as ever, with the school doing its best to absolve itself of guilt and also indicate that she and her husband are to blame. There’s no easy answers in this one, just a family trying to deal with their grief, reach out, and hope that they can avoid the same thing happening to their younger daughter. It’s heavy stuff, but again it’s very well done.

There are a few drawback to this volume, of course. Kaori, as I noted, takes a while to become likeable, and in Chapter 2 seriously considers having an abortion when she finds out that she’s pregnant. (She doesn’t. This also has one of the funnier parts of the book, where she notes at work that she’s pregnant and the entire male office staff tenses up before she notes it’s her husband’s baby.) Her husband Taiyo is one of those guys who’s hard to read, typical of such manga where we’re meant to empathize with the heroine, and doesn’t develop as much as I’d like – we do see he has a silly side to him, and certainly he and Kaori love each other in their own way, but I hope future volumes flesh him out. Lastly, their are two timeskips – six years after the first chapter, and about a year and a half after the second – which can make it a bit hard to connect.

That said, I was surprised how much I really enjoyed and connected with this manga. The characters are well-written, they all have their own voice. Kaori is a fun, imperfect heroine, yet you can clearly see why guys would fall for her. And like adopted mother, like son – Kota is clearly hot high school crush material, but needs to be able to get along with other people rather than holding them at arms length. the series is still running in Japan 8 years later, and has 14 volumes out to date. A few future volumes feature Kota with what appears to be other high school children, so I suspect I will get my wish. Wonder! is a great manga for adult women who grew up reading high-school shoujo, but now want to read manga by the same writers about grown-ups as well. Definitely recommended.

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  1. I think this was the first JManga title I bought (I recognized the artist’s name, and I enjoyed the vaguely 70s look of the art, and that was enough to sell it for me), but I hadn’t got around to actually reading it until now. It’s just… that whole reading manga on a screen thing… But now I’ve read it, and it really is an enjoyable, sweet story with characters I love and want to know more about. I’m pretty excited to hear that there are quite a few more volumes to go!! I hope JManga will keep translating the series!


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