Kokoro Connect, Vol. 1

By Sadanatsu Anda and CUTEG. Released in Japan by Enterbrain, serialized in the magazine Famitsu Comic Clear. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

Generally speaking, if you’re going to be releasing a manga series based on a light novel that stars a group of high school students in a strange club, you’d better have something extra to bring to the table in order to distinguish yourself from packs of similar series. And Kokoro Connect does have a premise that shows promise, particularly if it goes the dramatic direction that it seems to be hinting at. Three girls and two boys are friends in a club, till one day they discover that the five of them have begun to randomly switch bodies, without warning and for unknown periods. After having the reason explained to them by an exposition who happened to be walking by, they have to figure out how to deal with this, particularly as they are all rather fragile teens, and many have hidden secrets.

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The leads are all likeable but flawed. In fact, in possibly the most annoying part of the volume, we have the flaws explained by Himeko, the ‘serious student’ of the club. Our hero is told how he tends to put the needs of others before himself, and in fact is directly called a “self-sacrificing bastard”. The trouble is we’ve only known him for about 90 pages before this, and the only evidence we see is that he volunteered for cleanup duty because no one else wanted to. Likewise, one somewhat insecure, thought-provoking monologue does not really measure up against the previous scenes of a girl being happy and outgoing, so hearing that Iori is “the most likely to crack” seems a bit out of nowhere. Kokoro Connect has a “tell rather than show” problem.

This is a bodyswap manga, and so it can sometimes be difficult to recall who is in which body at the time. The usual manga shorthand is to see either a ghostly presence of the real person behind the swapped one, or to show a SD-caricature of the real person in the speech balloon. This volume does both, and I think the latter works better, as the doubling can look confusing. Other than that, though, the artwork is appealing and cute. There’s also a healthy dose of humor scattered throughout. I could have done without the ‘oh my god teenage boys are perverts’ stuff, but if I wanted to avoid that I’d have to drop manga altogether. And the “solution” to Yui’s issues with men did make me laugh, I will admit. As for romance, it seems to be a ‘one guy and two girls who kind of like him’ story, with a ‘backup couple’ thrown in. The backup couple get the most development here, which tells me that the majority of what’s to come will likely focus on Iori and Himeko.

Mostly, though, I think this first volume made me hope that things improve in the next four (It’s a 5-volume series). It’s an intriguing premise, and I think it does show promise that it could take advantage of that, but right now it feels like it’s trying too hard. Let’s hope it finds its feet in the next volume.

D-Frag!, Vol. 1

By Tomoya Haruno. Released in Japan by Media Factory, serialization ongoing in the magazine Comic Alive. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

An action manga can get away with a chapter or two with no fighting. A romance manga relies on there being little to no resolution for volumes at a time. But a gag manga has to have gags, or else it runs the risk of failure even after only a chapter. Being funny, on a long-term basis, can be quite difficult. Most writers therefore try to balance out their humorous manga with other elements, such as the aforementioned fighting or romance. When you do see an author that tries to pull off straight-up gag manga, then, it’s an impressive thing. Particularly if it’s been licensed in North America, whose gag manga litter the shores of the river Styx. D-Frag! is not quite PURE gag manga, such as Bobobo-bo Bo-Bobo or Cromartie High School, but it comes pretty damn close.

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I’m not exactly sure what the title is supposed to signify, as the manga has nothing to do with defragmenting your hard drive. Instead it’s a variation on ‘straight man guy joins a really weird club’, only without the strong personality of a Haruhi or Kyon. Kazama wants to be a delinquent, but is honestly too nice and well-meaning. He’s tricked into joining the “Game Development Club”, whose members include a thug (who’s also student council president), a jock, a space cadet, and the teaching advisor, who is usually mistaken for one of the students. The plot, such as it is, starts when he finds out there’s already a Game Development Club – the ‘real” one, so to speak – and that the club he’s now joined is a fake offshoot.

If this doesn’t sound like much to hang a plot on, well, you’re right there. The only member of the real club who matters is Takao, who fell out with one of the fake club members and is trying to make up with her by being stubborn and screaming a lot, in the traditional manga way. She also has a large chest which is frequently commented on, lest you worry that Comic Alive had suddenly turned into some other magazine. Seeing her interaction with Roku is nevertheless a highlight of the volume, and leads to the only (very brief) serious moments. Much of the rest of it is the eccentric personalities of everyone involved, and Kazama’s tsukkomi reaction to their antics.

Another impressive aspect of this first volume: there’s little to no romance suggested. Now, this may change, but I greatly enjoyed that this manga is not a harem manga with gag elements, but devoted entirely to being weird and silly. Kazama is far too busy trying to figure out how to deal with anyone to find them attractive (his preferences are apparently towards big breasts, but even this is used as gag fodder), and girls such as Roku seem more content to simply have him around then have an unrequited crush.

This sort of series is dangerous to read, because if it loses its humor and pacing, it could crash very fast. But Vol. 1 is a solid start, and I laughed out loud several times. I’m interested in seeing where it goes.

Blood Lad, Vol. 5

By Yuuki Kodama. Released in Japan by Kadokawa Shoten, serialization ongoing in the magazine Young Ace. Released in North America by Yen Press.

I said last time that it was the small character moments that were the best in Blood Lad, and that’s still true. But it can’t be denied, the main plot has become increasingly more readable even as it becomes more deadly. There’s an awful lot going on here, and if it seems to be the sort of thing that you always see happen in manga series like this one, well, there’s a reason for that. Blood Lad not only breaks the fourth wall, but sits around it and examines why it’s a wall at all, with the help of all the lampshades it’s hanging to shed light on the subject. (This tortured metaphor is brought to you by the letter R.)

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At the end of the last volume, we saw the culmination of all of Braz’ clever schemes and manipulations, as he manages to resurrect his dead father to regain the kingdom. Naturally, everything goes completely per-shaped not twenty minutes in, because Braz is not the star of this manga, and therefore the world does not run according to his rules. This is brought home to him over and over again by Staz, who is the star, and discusses the virtues of things like just attacking without thinking in order to save everyone. Blood Lad may run in a seinen magazine, but at heart it’s all shonen.

This leads to the big event of the second half; having been forced to retreat from the big villain, Staz has a clever plan: read his vast collection of manga to find a way to defeat Akim. It’s the sort of twist that makes you groan, even in a manga this meta. But then Staz starts to explain his reasoning for this. Due to the way reincarnation works between the human and magic world, he thinks that manga published in the modern day might be subconscious memories of what actually occurred years ago in the demon world, involving powers and objects now lost. Therefore, it is vitally important to read that 86-volume series.

Actually, my favorite manga-related joke in this volume is everyone getting so worked up over shoujo love comedy Marmalade Boy… sorry, Lemonade Boy. (The covers look identical, so this is just “wait, I don’t write for Shueisha” at work here.) It could be argued that the romance is the weakest part of Blood Lad, mostly as Fuyumi still tends to be a bit of a drip. We’re helped here by focusing on Bell, who’s got it bad for Staz but suffers from the inability to express herself and a colossal case of poor timing, plus (as the reader knows) the fact that Staz loves Fuyumi but isn’t quite aware of it yet. There’s plenty of comedic moments, but her feelings aren’t belittled at all, which I appreciated.

We do still get the small character moments in this book – Liz’s reaction to Braz’s fate, and the followup to it, is wonderful – but there’s no denying that things are getting darker and more deadly. It looks like we’re headed for a major battle in the next volume, which is a shame as it will be a while – Vol. 11 came out in Japan this May, meaning we don’t even have enough for half a release yet. In the meantime, though, we have this volume. There are probably better manga series out there, but there are few series as compulsively readable as Blood Lad.