I Am Here!, Vol. 2

By Ema Toyama. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Nakayoshi. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.

I’m pleased to see that we’re getting the second and final omnibus of this quiet, down-to-earth shoujo series from Kodansha. It has a satisfying conclusion, though I admit that I think I liked it better when the series was focusing on Sumino trying to open up and make new friends. This final volume deals more with Sumino’s romantic love triangle, and it’s simply not as interesting.

We left off with the manga trying to confuse us more about the two online friends in Sumino’s blog, and whether one or both of them were the two guys at her high school. It should come as no surprise to learn that one of them is, nor should it be too much of a surprise to find it’s a bit of a role reversal. I was rather surprised to find that the other online friend was completely unrelated to Sumino’s life in every way, and in fact lives in Osaka. It was a reasonable fakeout that I appreciated. (It also led to a mostly boring side story at the end, but hey, can’t have everything.)

We do also see Sumino clash with the schoolgirl bully who hounded her in Volume 1, Aya. I liked this as well, if only for a look at the mentality of this sort of person. Aya’s already been ostracized by her classmates, and has pretty much already ‘lost’. But she’s bullying Sumino, because, well, that’s what she does. And there’s still these unresolved feelings inside her that need to come out somewhere. The resolution of their fight was cliched, but still rather heartwarming. Although I will admit I could have done without ‘the sunflower in my heart isn’t bent!’. There’s cheesy and then there’s just corny.

But the majority of the volume is dealing with which guy Sumino is going to choose – Hinata, the sweet, caring boy that she’s already grown close to, or Teru, the harsher but sexier type whose words gave her more encouragement? Needless to say, this also leads to a rift between the two boys, who are now after the same girl. I found this more interesting for Teru’s backstory than anything else – he’s a certain type of shoujo boy that if this were a title for teens rather than young girls might be the lead – a jerkass sort who tries to encourage the heroine in an oblique way. Hinata, unfortunately, comes off as rather bland in comparison, though he did get more attention last volume.

Overall, it’s a nice, sweet manga, but it’s still hard not to compare this with Kimi Ni Todoke and find it wanting. No new ground is broken, and after a first volume focusing on broadening our heroine’s world, it all comes down to the standard love triangle. It doesn’t really put a foot wrong, and if you like this sort of genre it’s an easy title to recommend. But you might want to grade it on a bit of a curve.

I Am Here! Volume 1

By Ema Toyama. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Nakayoshi. Released in North America by Del Rey.

Another omnibus volume from Del Rey, though this one at least looks like it was designed that way deliberately. We’re seeing a few of these 5-volume series being released here in Volumes of 3 and 2 – Yen Press is doing this with Dragon Girl and Sasameke – and certainly it makes more financial sense. And, thankfully, we now at least know it won’t be abandoned halfway. Kodansha USA is listing the 2nd and final volume for July of 2011.

As for the volume itself, I was sort of reminded as I read it of Fairy Tail. Now, it has absolutely nothing to do with Fairy Tail itself. But much as I imagined Kodansha telling Hiro Mashima to go draw a clone of One Piece that will get the same audience and (hopefully) the same sales numbers, it’s very hard to read this volume, and its heroine, without thinking of Sawako from Kimi Ni Todoke. Whereas Sawako had the ‘Ringu’ effect going for her, Sumino here is merely invisible to others. Not in a Translucent sort of way, just in the normal teenage girl ‘I don’t stick out or speak very well, so I get ignored or disregarded’ sense. Luckily, this being shoujo manga, she has some allies. The hot boy in school turns out to have been watching her – and falling for her – all along, and she also has two commentors on her blog, which is how she has most of her daily interaction. Were this an actual blog in real life, no doubt she would be dealing with ‘tits or gtfo’ posts. Instead, her two online friends offer sensible (if sometimes differing) advice.

The plot itself is fairly generic, with one premise that I’ve grown very weary of (all the girls in school hate me, but at least I can lean on my hot guy friends). As with most manga in this genre, the hero is a bit too perfect – I prefer his snarkier friend, whose advice to Sumino tends to be less affirming and more practical. That said, the heroine is certainly likeable, and you do root for her to succeed. I was also interested in the main ‘bully girl’ character in this volume. She gets her comeuppance towards the end, as her fellow girls abandon her when she gets more and more strident – but the page focuses on her briefly as she runs off, seeing her frustration and self-loathing. That was nice.

The art is both quite good and very bad. The character designs are cookie-cutter, and worst of all tend to vary – the hero in particular can look different from one panel to the next, and the only way we can tell him apart from his best friend is that one is blond. On the other hand, the general layouts are a lot more professional, and the artist clearly has an idea of what makes a striking image. With the focus of the volume being the distance Sumino feels from her classmates, seeing the group of girls in a half-circle as they realize that Hinata is paying attention to her is striking and doom-laden, and makes good use of a two-page spread. We see this again and again throughout the first hal;f of the book, as various girls surround Sumino, giving off a crushing vibe. Then, in the scene where Sumino stands up to the bully, we suddenly see these same girls gathering around Sumino to confront the bully. Suddenly Sumino is WITHIN the half-circle – and it’s a warm, life-affirming feeling. I like seeing that sort of thing in a manga. If only the characters themselves didn’t look so generic.

In the end, this is a good but not great manga. It’s good enough that I’ll get Volume 2 to see how it ends, but it’s certainly no Kimi ni Todoke. Just a normal story of a shy invisible girl who’s gradually learning to come out of her shell and find love.