About Sean Gaffney

Sean Gaffney has been reading manga since 1996, writing fanfiction in the manga and anime world since 1996, but only decided to start a manga blog in 2009. No one is quite sure why, as talking endlessly is one of his favorite things. He’s also written guest posts at Erica Friedman’s Okazu. His favorite manga things to discuss are shoujo with cheerful yet oblivious heroines, defending angry tsundere girls, and pretending he doesn’t ship. His favorite non-manga things to discuss are classic cartoons from the 1930s to 1960s, William Shakespeare (and other Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights), and Frank Zappa. But really, he’ll happily talk about anything, even if he has to Google it first to pretend he knows all about it. He lives in Connecticut.

Whispered Words, Vol. 2

By Takashi Ikeda. Released in Japan in three separate volumes as “Sasameki Koto” by Media Factory, serialized in the magazine Comic Alive. Released in North America by One Peace Books.

Emotional turmoil is the order of the day with this second omnibus, as our two heroines go through an amazing amount of distress as they try to save their friendship while also dealing with their burgeoning love. Indeed, for Ushio the stress gets so great she has a temper tantrum that ends with her literally breaking her hand. Again, this is unsurprising given the age of the characters, but it can be a bit exhausting to read about, especially given that it’s only at the very end of this book that we see any forward development towards resolution. For the most part, the reader is meant to sympathize with Tomoe, who wishes they’d get it together but wants it to happen on its own.

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Since so much of the first omnibus was either from Sumika’s point of view or focused on her, it’s a relief that this second volume gets to give us Ushio’s side more often. Ushio’s immaturity is aggravating, but at the same time we’re shown the background which has led to it. This is not a book that wants to cover itself by saying that it’s just akogare, the Japanese term for a strong emotional bond between young girls (with the subtext that it’s abandoned when they ‘grow up’ and marry men). Ushio being a lesbian is discussed throughout, almost always in a negative manner. We get a flashback showing her budding friendship with Sumika, who at first is trying to draw her into the rest of the class because it’s her duties as class president, but over time they grow closer through the sheer joy of friendship.

It’s the sort of friendship you don’t want to lose, and much of this second volume sees both of them plastering on fake smiles and saying that they don’t want to ruin everything by confessions. The difficulty here is that they’re both such good friends that they can tell when the other person is fake smiling, and so naturally they spend the majority of the time unhappy, wondering why they’re drifting further apart. At the end of the main section of the omnibus (there’s an extra unrelated short story, which was rather dull), Ushio at least seems to have taken the next step in resolving things, but it remains to be seen whether Sumika will follow up on it.

Being an omnibus, there’s a lot more to discuss here. Akemi’s modeling career comes to an ignominious end, in a chapter that is meant to read as incredibly awkward, and does. There’s also some lovely comedy, mostly involving either Kyori and food or one of the minor side characters, who wears her hair back in a tight bun that makes her look comedic, thus disguising the fact that she’s secretly a gorgeous model. Most relevant is the introduction of two new freshman to the karate club, which now has enough members to actually compete. Mayu and Koi are meant to compare and contrast with Sumika and Ushio, and you get the sense that by the time high school finishes they too may come to a realization of just what they mean to each other.

I didn’t notice any egregious typos in this volume, so there’s no real reason whatsoever not to pick this omnibus up. It’s a must for any fans of yuri or even slow-boiling romantic frustration. In the final volume, due out in March, we should get the payoff.

The Garden of Words

By Makoto Shinkai and Midori Motohashi. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Afternoon. Released in North America by Vertical Comics.

I don’t really watch a lot of anime, but I know enough by osmosis that I am aware that the words ‘Makoto Shinkai’ and ‘bittersweet’ go together extremely well. I also recall the manga version of Five Centimeters Per Second, which lived up to that description very well. Now Vertical is releasing The Garden of Words, another by the same author. It’s still pretty riddled with emotion and emotional turmoil, but the good news is that there is a more optimistic ending that makes you think things might actually work out for the couple on the cover, even if several people might be skeeved a little by the May-August romance going on within the book.

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Our hero is Takao, a young high school student who has dreams of being a shoemaker, but finds himself frustrated as he’s trying to do this self-taught, and still is not as good as he wants to be. He skips school whenever it’s raining and goes to a public gazebo to sketch people’s shoes. I like him. His frustration rings very true, and we can also see how he wants to try to help Yukari as well but is uncertain how to, so it just comes out as emotional turmoil. He also falls for her pretty fast, even though she’s clearly older than she is – he assumes that she is an office lady.

One of the more interesting things about this title is that it has some reverse bullying. Takao seems to get on fairly well with his fellow students. When we get the flashbacks that show us what led Yukino to her depressed current existence, though, we see that it was a case of the students bullying a young teacher. The girls in her class think she’s being too friendly with the boys, so begin to simply skip, and the rest of the class then joins in. The few remaining blame the teacher for the poorer instruction they receive as a result. And so Yukino quits, and we see in the scenes in her tiny apartment that she’s had tremendous trouble moving forward in life, to the point where she goes to the aforementioned gazebo just to drink.

But she and Takao have a strong bond, at first over poetry, and then because they seem to want to understand each other. I like that the poetry used was one of those quotes where you have to find the proper response, as it allows the whole thing to go full circle towards the end. I was a bit less happy with the way things did turn romantic – there’s nothing untoward here, but Takao does say he’s in love with Yukino, and the epilogue hints he’ll seek her out after he graduates from shoemaking school. The artist even shows off the discomfort of this by including a picture of a 20-year-old Yukino holding hands with an 8-year-old Takao in the extras. Teacher/student romance stories are far more popular in Japan than they are here, where anime fans still can’t say the words “Na-chan” without risking a fight.

Overall, however, this is exactly what you want from a Makoto Shinkai story, and the fact that it’s slightly happier and open ended also helps. And at one volume, it would also be a good present for someone who may have seen the film it’s based on.

Witchcraft Works, Vol. 1

By Ryu Mizunagi. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Good! Afternoon. Released in North America by Vertical Comics.

Sometimes when a company has a reputation for left-field, odd or intellectual manga titles, it can be a bit of a shock to see a license that goes against the grain. Such is the case with Witchcraft Works, which is not exactly a lowest common denominator title per se, but it definitely feels odd at Vertical, being the sort of thing I would have expected to see more with one of the more mainstream companies. Vertical it is, though, and the production is as always first rate. The content is pretty good as well, with the proviso that this feels very much like a first volume that hasn’t quite gotten a running start yet.

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The best thing that Witchcraft Works has going for it are its two leads. The heroine, Ayaka, is the school princess, revered and good at everything she does. And, as we discover, she’s also a witch, there to protect our unwitting hero, Honoka. As a witch, she is also good at everything she does, being adept at fire magic to the point where she may literally be a fire elemental of some sort. Throughout this first volume, she doesn’t crack a smile or even vary her expressions, really – she is completely stoic. It works quite well for what she’s supposed to be. As for Honoka, given that his function here is mainly to be shocked at events spiraling around him and ask “what’s going on?” a lot, he does pretty well, and you identify with his frustration at being unable to do anything.

As for the villains and supporting cast, I will admit I was less impressed. The ‘moe’ aspect of the manga, since it can’t come out in its stone-faced heroine, tends to be shunted here. Thus, our first villain is a catgirl who uses bunnies to attack, her villain team that arrives later also looks like a collection of traits rather than people (though we’ve barely met them yet), and Ayaka’s waitress friend is there to have giant breasts and fall down a lot. It feels as if the author was told “there isn’t enough here that would remind people of Comic Alive, please add some fanservice pronto.” I hope that as the series goes on these villains will be fleshed out a bit more.

There is a healthy dose of humor, and I like that the story doesn’t take itself too seriously. I may have disliked the fanservice waitress, but her appallingness is lampshaded, and Honoka’s general bafflement can get so intense that footnotes are needed to remind readers that he’s an idiot. With a title like this, where catgirls are throwing around evil bunnies and our heroine decided to get intel by typing everyone to a stake and torturing them, a sense of humor is essential to not have it tip over into self-parody, and this strikes just the right note.

I wasn’t blown awway by this first volume, but it’s solid, and with an anime airing last year should definitely attract some readers, particularly those who like stoic female leads who don’t take any guff. We’ll see how it develops.