Happy Cafe Volume 4

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.

I was reminded as I read this otherwise unremarkable volume of Happy Cafe at how often shoujo series, especially Hakusensha series, self-reference other works by the author. In Chapter 18 in this volume, we meet various servants and retainers to Mitsuki’s family, including her personal bodyguard, who clearly has a giant crush on her. As part of the rest of the staff mocking him for this, it is brought up that the personal assistant to her father has a brother who is dating a girl 8 years younger than himself. This seems completely irrelevant and out of left field, till you get to the end of the volume, which features a one-shot the artist drew for the quarterly magazine The Hana 3 years prior to these chapters. It stars the girl mentioned in this flashback.

Now, you’d think I’d be used to this by now, since I’m a big fan of the queen of this type of thing, Banri Hidaka. Not only has she made a career out of short stories and series featuring the Akiyoshi family, but those characters also show up in the midst of other series of hers as well. Nor is it just confined to Hakusensha; Seiho Boys’ High School just featured a short one-shot using characters from the author’s previous series. The fact is, fans in Japan follow authors just as much as they follow magazines, and they love callbacks, especially if it’s to an older series from before the writer was famous, as in this story. It’s a reward to fans who follow the magazines closely, a bit of ‘fanservice’ that’s different from the traditional definition.

Of course, I don’t think it works as well here, mostly as this volume of Happy Cafe is particularly scattered and unfocused. This is *also* something I’ve noticed before with Banri Hidaka, particularly in the early IHYMTA volumes, and I wonder if it’s simply a fault of the fast schedule of Hana to Yume and a lack of editors. As this is a shoujo romance, and 15 volumes long at that, we know we aren’t going to see any romantic resolution soon. Moreover, as it involves the daily running of a dessert cafe, there’s not much in a way of through plot. It’s a slice-of-life watch cute things happen manga.

This means that character development and plot implications happen very slowly and sometimes awkwardly, usually with character introductions. We meet Ichiro’s family in the first chapter, but it’s not really set up by anything except ‘it’s time to show the readers Ichiro’s family’. The chapter with Mitsuka is very similar, and also helps reassure people that despite her adoration of the heroine, Mitsuka is not gay after all. Probably the best chapter involves Uru and Shindo trapped in his apartment, mostly as the setup simply feels more realistic and not coming from out of left field.

I may be picking on this manga too much. It’s certainly pleasant and cheery, and I do like the heroine a lot, as she’s a type that just appeals to me. (Hikari from Special A, another Hana to Yume title, is very similar to Uru.) But honestly, the feeling that I came away with in reading this volume of Happy Cafe was ‘someone’s having too much trouble meeting deadlines with a snappy finished product’. It’s decent shoujo, but could be better.

Happy Cafe Volume 2

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.

I’ll freely admit this volume was not as good as the first. This series is basically like candy or fast food – light and enjoyable, but you can’t remember a thing about it an hour later. Still, candy and fast food are insanely popular despite this.

Most of this volume is devoted to a rivalry with another sweet shop that specializes in Japanese desserts. You would think that would not really be that much of a threat to a Western-style cake shop, but there’s more going on here than meets the eye. The staff of the Japanese shop seem to have a grudge against our heroes, and are out to try to ruin their business.

The majority this arc relies on the character tropes we’ve already gotten to know after only one volume. Uru is hotheaded and impulsive, but also kind and has that smile that forces people to simply stare blushing at her. Shindo gets to be grumpy and blunt while still showing he’s essentially kind at heart. And Ichiro continues to merely exist until the inevitable future chapters that will give him backstory. Ah, the joys of walking ciphers…

There’s a slapstick humor to these stories as well, which I quite enjoy. Lots of cartoon violence and over the top reactions. Glad to see Uru’s insane strength is still being mentioned, and seeing her dragging Ichiro around was a hoot. Best of all is when Uru meets up with one of the rival store guys, and hears why he twitches whenever Ichiro is around. (Love Uru’s face when she first hears this… all women are yaoi fans deep down.)

There’s also a side-story here, dealing with a girl who looks much older than her age, and her encounters with her newspaper delivery man. It’s very much an ‘early one-shot’ sort of work that you traditionally see in Hakusensha shoujo around Volume 2 or so. And it creates a nice contrast to the main story because, as the author notes, the characters are nothing like the heroes of Happy Cafe.

This manga will never win any awards, and as shoujo goes it’s pretty much average. But it’s cute, and funny, and I think if you buy it you’ll like it a lot. And then probably put it on the shelf and forget all about it till the next volume, when you’ll pull it down to remind yourself who everyone is.

Happy Cafe Volume 1

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.

It’s fairly well known by now what my shoujo buttons are. Strong, optimistic heroine. Lots of goofy comedy. Occasional sweet romance. So it’s probably no surprise to anyone how much I enjoyed this manga.

The plot is incredibly unoriginal, but again, shoujo manga. It’s not what you start with, but where you go with it. Plucky heroine strikes out on her own due to misunderstanding, meets hot guy (with hot guy friend), worms her way into their life, and into their hearts with her shiny cheeriness. Despite this, it’s nothing at all like Fruits Basket.

For one, the heroine’s family issues are resolved almost immediately. If we’re going to get future angst from Uru, it will have to be somewhere else. (As a side note, the Urusei Yatsura fan in me is disappointed that a girl named Uru doesn’t have cute little horns.) And while she’s bright and cheery, and sometimes a little clueless, she’s only a 5 out of ten on the shoujo heroine density index, where 10 would be Hikari from Special A.

Ichiro, the blond guy, is underdeveloped so far, but that’s no surprise in a manga that wants to set up the lead couple. Shindo is very well done, though. He fits the archetype of ‘jerk guy’, but in a good way. He’s mean to the heroine in ways like “why do you keep breaking things?” and “I am uncomfortable with telling you about myself”, which is totally understandable given his background. We don’t get ‘I like to screw with my girl’s head’ that so many other authors seem to think is what shoujo jerks should be.

So far the couple is quite sweet, with blushing going on between both Uru and Shindo. Since the series has three leads, I’m unsure if Ichiro will somehow enter and make this a love triangle, but it wouldn’t surprise me. This was 15 volumes long in Japan, so we’ve clearly got a ways to go before we wrap up. The cafe plot lends itself well to one-shots (such as the one here with the model), so we don’t have to spend every chapter watching these two not get together.

There’s some very funny humor, with a lot of side ‘out of speech bubble’ comments I’ve seen in other Hana to Yume works. Uru’s incredible strength is a good quirk, though I think Ichiro’s sleeping/needs food schtick is somewhat overdone in the first volume. My favorite gag is when Shindo sees Uru up on a high ladder studying, and notes she shouldn’t sit so high wearing a skirt. Having read shoujo manga before, we expect red blushy “you pervert!” comments. So Uru’s blase “It’s OK, I’m wearing underwear!” made me laugh a lot.

There is, of course, one major fault. There is absolutely nothing new or innovative about this manga. It will not shock you, or make you struggle to get through the months until the next volume is released. It is what I call ‘comfort manga’, the title you can turn to after a long day that is not very taxing on the brain and puts a smile on your face (and a song in your heart, naturally). But it’s funny, and sweet, and has likeable leads, and thus as comfort manga I think it does its job quite well.