Twinkle Stars, Vol. 1

By Natsuki Takaya. Released in Japan as two separate volumes by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Yen Press. Translated by Sheldon Drzka.

This was the first series to be released after the end of the amazingly popular Fruits Basket, and everyone was on tenterhooks to see what it was going to be like, both here and in Japan. Of course, for various reasons it wasn’t actually released here till 2016, a good five years after it ended in Japan, so a bit of the bloom is off the rose. Still, it’s hard not to feel a bit of affection and excitement for a new Takaya title. After reading this first volume, I get the sense that she had a better idea of where she was going with this – there’s a lot of backstory hints dropped here that the author is content to simply drop and then leave alone for a while. I suspect it will reward a reread. In the meantime, we have the adventures of a determined girl who always seems cheery but may be hiding a deep sadness, and the boy she runs into one day.

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I admit I did find it hard not to fall into the trap of “this is character X and Y from Fruits Basket mixed together!” at times. Sakuya does have a Tohru-esque sheen to her, though a lot of that is simply a similar “I will be happy and determined” attitude. I’m also thinking of Hijiri, who I will warn in advance is my favorite character. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but let’s face it, she’s Hanajima and Shigure mixed together, and there’s no way I’m not going to love that. A mask of sweetness hiding a deeply manipulative side but still basically a good person. We also get the male best friend with a crush that is clearly doomed (blond, of course, as the clear winning guy has darker hair – you win again, shoujo cliches). And Kana, Sakuya’s guardian who seems to be a deliberate step away from a Shigure sort – from what the story tells us, he’s a struggling artist, and many question why he can even take care of Sakuya at all.

Then there’s the male lead Chihiro, who is easily the most fascinating character in this first volume. And I will admit, not always in a good way. We first met him after he invited himself into Sakuya’s house by pretending to be her boyfriend, something that seems completely out of the blue. Later, when she meets him again (she sees him on a train that she just misses, and proceeds to jump off the tracks and run after it till she hits the next stop, which may be the most Takaya thing ever), it feels a lot more unstable and dangerous, and frankly my first thought was to tell Sakuya to stay the hell away from him. Naturally, this is when she realizes she’s fallen in love. The second half of the book, where he (inevitably) shows up as a New Transfer Student, is thus filled with incredible awkwardness, fake smiles and Sakuya freaking out – but doing her best!

Basically, Twinkle Stars is exactly what you want in a new Takaya series. If you’ve read her other work, there’s a lot here that’s familiar – not just the characterizations, but the plot beats and emotional responses. But that’s actually great, as she’s so good at that. Twinkle Stars is like getting a brand new blanket that’s as warm and cozy as your last one. Settle down with it.

Haganai: I Don’t Have Many Friends, Vol. 14

By Yomi Hirasaka and Itachi. Released in Japan as “Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai” by Media Factory, serialization ongoing in the magazine Comic Alive. Released in North America by Seven Seas. Translated by Ryan Peterson. Adapted by Ysabet Reinhardt McFarlane.

(Note: please do not post light novel spoilers in the comments.)

Most harem manga these days have to walk a very thin tightrope, especially in a modern, internet-forum friendly world. readers want the hero to end up with the girl they like best, and every time that things return to the status quo they are upset. Writers and editors want this to be successful for as long as possible, which means stringing things out and returning to status quo without making it look too obvious. With Haganai, the Neighbors Club has been the way to do this, as each of the cast is so socially inept that even basic interaction is a challenge, much less having a significant other. Or at least, that’s what Kodaka tells himself. In fact, Kodaka is very good at lying to himself and others, and the astute reader of Haganai has, through several books now, been feeling more and more like Rika, watching this play out and getting increasingly angry. This is the volume where that rage finally explodes.

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This kicks off with a seeming resolution of the perpetual love triangle between Kodaka and the two female leads. Yes, there are more than two love interests, but at heart it’s always been about Yozora vs. Sena. More on Yozora later, but I felt that Sena’s confession was first rate. Yes, it started out as her seemingly talking to herself while gaming, as if practicing for later, but once she realizes what actually happened, she doesn’t back off. This makes a start contrast to Kodaka, who literally runs away as fast as possible and hides from the rest of the club for days. His desire for stasis has never been more contemptible than it is here, particularly given that he spends said days with the Student Council, the Neighbors’ Club’s mortal enemies. To his surprise, they don’t view him as a thug and a bad person, and we see just how much of Kodaka’s self-worth problems are his own doing.

Then comes the scene with Rika. (Yes, there’s a nice scene with Yukimura as well, but while it’s heartwarming, it’s all setup for that one gag. You know the one I mean.) Rika already confronted Kodaka last time about his perpetual “Huh? What was that?” response, and was seen to be barely holding it together. Now she explodes, and it’s glorious. Kudos to Itachi, by the way: the art in Haganai has frequently taken on a sketchy, exaggerated look at times, particularly when it’s funny, and it doubles down on that here, with some amazing faces that would not look out of place in a horror title. Rika beats the shit out of Kodaka (scientifically, of course) as she rants about what she learned from Sena. She’s absolutely right, of course. Of all the girls in the series, Sena has gotten twice the romantic subtext as anyone else. And he’s running away from this because he can’t face up to her actually liking him as more than a friend.

Haganai is caught up with Japan, so it will be many months before we see the next volume. But now that Rika and Kodaka have admitted hey are indeed friends, can he man up and listen to Sena? More importantly, what about Yozora, who seemingly heard this entire exchange, and whose devastated sobbing face ends this arc? The artist notes that the manga may be a bit different from the light novels, though it’s unclear if that means additions or actual changes. In any case, for those who were waiting for the payoff in Haganai, here’s where it starts.

The Isolator, Vol. 3

By Reki Kawahara and Shimeji. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by ZephyrRz.

It is rather startling how little time the main events of The Isolator are taking place over. The eyes descended to Earth three months ago, despite the presence of what seems to be a long-standing secret organization dedicated to harnessing their power. It’s only been a day or two since the events of Book 2, as well, and this book also only takes a couple of days. And at the end, they’re discussing invading the enemy’s stronghold. I’m not sure how long Kawahara intends for this series to go, but I don’t think it’s meant to be that long. Though, given there’s an anime coming out this Winter, that may change if it gets popular enough. In any event, a new volume of The Isolator, and hey, a new cover girl.

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Yes, after getting the first two covers to herself, Yumiko is forced to give way to Suu, who really should be invisible on the cover, but a) that would give the game away, and b) that would mean there is no cute girl on the cover. Yes, Suu us a teammate of the group who can turn herself invisible (with the exception of her pupils), and as with all the other characters, it stems from past personal trauma. I was wary of getting too attached to her – literally everything she did from the moment she showed up to her final sacrifice screamed “I am going to die so that the main guy can learn a valuable lesson”. Fortunately, she doesn’t quite die (though if Book 4 takes place right after 3, she may not appear much), but the lesson is still learned.

Minoru and Yumiko continue to be the stars of this book, thoguh Suu obviously steals Yumiko’s spotlight a bit, something she is keenly aware of – her discussion with Minoru about her jealousy is possibly the best hart-to-heart they’ve had so far. And Minoru continues to find new ways to use his talent, turning the ability to isolate yourself in an impenetrable sphere into an actual dangerous weapon. Which is good, because the new villain of the book we meet, Trancer, manages to get away along with his boss, who is more of an arc villain. (You can tell that we’re not done with Trancer as we still haven’t heard his tragic backstory beyond that apparently he has his childhood friend frozen in ice somewhere.)

The Isolator continues to have the same strengths and weaknesses the previous two books had. The strength is the action scenes which are really first rate – it’s a short novel, but the pacing is perfect, and there’s lots of cool superhero moves on display. The weakness continues to be that, despite best efforts to try to inject levity into the series at odd points, this is still the most straightfaced and serious of Kawahara’s books, and given the incipient tragedy at the back of everyone’s lives, it can get a bit depressing if the reader isn’t prepared for it.

I’m not sure where the series goes from here – the next volume isn’t scheduled in Japan yet, so it will likely be at least a year till we see it – but I’m still on board. I just wish we could add a goofy ditz or a perverted best friend or something to take the edge off.