Bookshelf Briefs pointer

For those who read my site by looking at the category archives, I have reviews of Happy Cafe 8 and Amnesia Labyrinth 2 on this week’s Bookshelf Briefs. They can be found here: Bookshelf Briefs

Happy Cafe Volume 7

By Kou Matsuzuki. Released in Japan as “Shiawase Kissa Sanchoume” by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

Reading this volume of Happy Cafe reminded me in many ways of my experiences reading The Magic Touch. They’re both manga that are, at best, merely ‘okay’. However, no one is decrying Happy Cafe as one of the worst titles ever released in North America the way they did with The Magic Touch. So I feel far less of a need to defend it and point out its strengths. Which is a bit of a problem for perfectly adequate volumes like this, where my favorite part was the one-shot at the end written 3 years before the chapters we find here. Yes, once again I latch onto a minor supporting couple at the expense of the leads.

The chapter is quite good, and I like how she tied it into the main narrative. We aren’t quite at Banri Hidaka levels of ‘all my stories are connected’, but it shows a certain amount of thought going into her plots that she can use the characters in ‘Number One Deluxe’ here and possibly develop their relationship beyond what we got in the one-shot. Also, the comic stars a tall grumpy girl. Another favorite type of mine in manga. Unfortunately, the other minor couple that we met in Volume 6 gets resolved perfunctorily in barely a page or two, showing the pacing problems that have dogged this series since it began.

Meanwhile, we have our leads. Natsuki Takaya, in discussing Fruits Basket, once said she had written outlines for a 2-volume, 6-volume, and more than 13-volume series, depending on how popular it was and when it would get cancelled by Hakusensha. Happy Cafe has reached Volume 7, and I think we’ve hit that point for Matsuzuki as well, as the relationship between Uru and Shindo, which seemed to be near actual resolution in the previous volume, gets scaled back quite a bit here. We have love rivals who confess, unaware our girl is asleep. We have love rivals who are simply doing their best to mess things up and get Uru and Shindo thinking in the wrong direction. And we have people trying to get them together, and being far less of a help than they think they are.

In the middle of this, it’s a shame that Uru and Shindo aren’t as interesting as they got last volume. Shindo is having difficulty dealing with abandonment issues and his mother, so I can at least see why he’s at a low ebb. Uru, though, for some reason isn’t as fun as she’s been in the past. Matsuzuki works best when she’s trying to be funny, not being quite as good as drama, and seeing Uru without her amusing quirks and gags makes me think something is missing. (I will admit there was one great bit, where she and Sou are locked in a room at the school and she admits she can’t force open the door – not because it’s too much for her, but because the school said she would be punished if she smashed any more school property with her insane strength.)

There’s nothing really wrong with this volume, despite all my complaining above. If a shoujo fan reads it, they will enjoy it. But it’s not going to make them check Amazon desperately to see when the next volume is out the way, say, Kimi ni Todoke does. And honestly, there’s another similarity between this series and The Magic Touch: both artists have gone on to do a new series that is proving better and more popular than the first in Japan; Tsubaki with Oresama Teacher, and Matsuzuki with The Prince, the Witch, and the Princesses. Manga series in Japan are not only for popularity, but also as a breeding ground for greater things. And we’re seeing an earlier example of an artist honing their craft and learning as they go.

Happy Cafe Volume 6

By Kou Matsuzuki. Released in Japan as “Shiawase Kissa Sanchoume” by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

Looking back on previous reviews of this series, I see that I accidentally forgot to review Vols. 3 and 5. But hey, that’s sort of the way it goes. Happy Cafe isn’t bad at all, but it is painfully average. The romance, such as it is, is crawling along at a snail’s pace, and our heroine, Uru, hasn’t really had too many life-changing experiences yet. As a result, we’re left with cute slice-of-life baking comedy, which is cute, but that’s about it.

There are a few things about this volume that stood out for me. First off, the second half takes place in Uru’s school. Given this is a rare high school manga where the heroine is mostly seen outside of it, this manages to come across as refreshing. It’s especially interesting seeing Uru bouncing off a different set of friends – she’s a bit more savvy and less clueless when dealing with the difficulties of classmates and culture festivals. And yes, we get another culture festival here, of course – it’ll be a good excuse to get the lead guys to the school in Volume 6.

Secondly, Uru and Shindo’s relationship proceeds at a crawl despite everyone’s best efforts. Both the boss and Mitsuka seem to regard it as inevitable (though with different feelings about such a thing), and work to make Uru’s ‘cake research’ with Shindo into a date. Which it would be, were Shindo not still in denial, and Uru still not completely clueless. To make up for this, two of Uru’s classmates are clearly in love but avoiding each other, mostly due to class separation and the girl’s mother. Naturally, Uru will be doing everything she can to fix this – it’s the right of every clueless shoujo heroine to fix all romances but their own.

The last reason to enjoy Happy Cafe is the random humor thrown in. Not necessarily the written gags – most of the best bits in this volume are the ones that are pure art. I loved where Shindo was briefly imagining Uru dressed in the nice outfit she wore on their ‘research date’, then punching the image in half when the real Uru actually arrives. Likewise, the artist has a way of drawing comedically dense expressions and mining them for humor. Oh yes, and even though it probably wasn’t a dig at otaku culture, I loved the bit in the imaginary wedding between Uru and Ichiro where the caption notes ‘we promise she isn’t pregnant!’.

Really, though, a lot of this volume is simply adequate. Even the flashback to Ichiro’s school life, meant to give him a backstory and some depth, feels perfunctory – we never really get the sudden change in personality he exhibits, the way that we get Mitsuya’s lack of purpose and sudden discovery of it in V.B. Rose 11. Happy Cafe isn’t a bad series, but it doesn’t reach out and grab you like a lot of Hana to Yume stuff. Still, the volume made me interested in what will happen at the festival, so I’ll pick up 7 to see what happens. It’s 15 volumes total, so there’s a lot still to go.