Love at Fourteen, Vol. 1

By Fuka Mizutani. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Rakuen Le Paradis. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Sliec-of-life can be very difficult sometimes in the West, particularly if it also has romance in it. The genre tends to involve a laid-back quality, with lots of chapters devoted to normal kids doing normal things, and recalling the nostalgia of your teenage years. It’s the antithesis of a title like Naruto or Parasyte. But when done right, slice-of-life can bring a smile to your face, making you want to turn the pages faster so that you can bask in the warm glow of the cast’s feelings. Love at Fourteen is definitely slice-of-life done right; I lost track of the number of times I said “Oh my God, they’re adorable” about halfway through this first volume.

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The premise of this volume will not seem unfamiliar to readers of another Hakusensha series, His & Hers Circumstances. Kanata and Kazuki are both the most admired kids in middle school, both having an air of ‘maturity’ about them that sets them above the pack. Of course, that maturity is also what keeps kids from getting too close to them. However, the pair have a secret – they’re childhood friends, and have been “acting” mature as it’s expected of them, when frequently they want to do nothing but relax and let their emotions hang out. The troubles start when the class points out, independently, how gorgeous Kanata’s hair is, and how deep Kazuki’s voice is, things which had never really occurred to two young teens who have hung out for years.

And so they start to realize they’re in love with each other, and are not quite clear how to deal with it. What follows are a series of chapters with lots of heavy blushing, frustrated desires, and sweet reunions. The drama is minimal, mostly as these two don’t make their own drama. “Acting” mature has been the norm for so long that they find they’ve actually *become* mature. What’s more, it’s never stated outright, but I suspect like most Japanese middle schools open relationships are heavily frowned on, so all this has to be kept a secret, which is a pain when you’re having trouble keeping your hands off each other.

I had thought that there was going to be a bit of drama towards the end of the volume, as one of their trysts is observed by Nagai, the class troublemaker. However, before he can start an obvious blackmail attempt he is quickly caught up in problems of his own, stemming from the class music teacher, who’s trying to get him to stop being truant and start singing. I’m a sucker for teachers who can wrap teens around their fingers, and so this was possibly my favorite chapter, and I really hope we see the two of them in the next volume.

In the end, though, this is really Kanata and Kazuki’s series, and there’s an abundance of them to enjoy here. It’s early on, and we haven’t even had a first fight chapter. Things are developing slowly and sweetly, as you’d expect from two kids who’ve known each other so long and now have to redefine each other… and themselves. The book has little definitions interspersed throughout on puberty and developing a sense of self, and you can see our leads develop accordingly. Most importantly, after reading this you will have the biggest goddamn smile on your face you’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

Soul Eater Not!, Vol. 4

By Atsushi Ohkubo. Released in Japan by Square Enix, serialized in the magazine Shonen Gangan. Released in North America by Yen Press.

I had thought that this was the final volume of the series, but apparently not, as there’s an unscheduled Vol. 5 that is likely waiting for a sufficient distance from the Japanese release. It’s unclear whether the plot of the manga will follow the anime, which had already finished (with Ohkubo’s advice) before this ended. That said, we have here a manga that still has the same problems which the first volume possessed, but is also adding some new ones, such as whether a typical ‘yuri’ fan is supposed to enjoy the series or be really pissed off about it, and how much serious plot you can have in a moe slice-of-life type manga before it really starts to feel out of place.

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Please note that by yuri fans I mean MALE yuri fans, the sort who would be quite happy to see the pairings end in a threesome, and who aren’t put off by the chapter of Meme running around naked that we see here. That said, fanservice isn’t everything, and I think most modern yuri fans are finding that the traditional tease just isn’t enough. Kim and Jackie are another good example – there’s lots of suggestion here that Jackie is in love with Kim, and some hints that Kim might one day return it… but this takes place before Soul Eater, where Kim and Ox become a couple. There’s no there there, it’s done solely to be ‘cutesy’ in a harmless way. Likewise, anyone who thinks that the ‘who will Tsugumi choose?’ plotline might actually involve genuine love and emotion has to be appalled at the aforementioned scene with the girls trying to sleep on a very hot night, which, fanservice aside, seems to show off the ‘immaturity’ of the girls for those who want a safe out.

That said, the other suggested romance in the series, that of Tsugumi and Akane, also seems to have vanished, and the manga is happily settling into focusing solely on our three heroines. There is also, among the jokes and 4-koma, a suggestion of the deeper ongoing plot. Eternal Feather is still recovering from her brainwashing two volumes ago. More importantly Meme’s memory issues, which have been used for comedy to this point, are getting to be a bigger and bigger issue, one that causes genuine concern. The final scene of the book is heartbreaking, as Tsugumi tears into Meme for what she sees as an annoying quirk (Tsugumi dealing with grief over a dead pet right now), but then stops seeing Meme expressing real sadness that she forgot something important again. It’s been vaguely implied she’s a mole for the villain, and I wonder if this is connected to that.

Soul Eater Not! is doing its best to try to appeal to a broader otaku market here, but it feels too pandering, to be honest, and could use more seriousness and heart. It still has some strengths – Anya has developed into the most sensible character of the bunch, and is a far cry from the tsundere princess she started as – but really, Soul Eater fans are better off with Soul Eater, and moe/yuri fans can find material that will give them better jokes and a better payoff than I expect this to have.

Yukarism, Vol. 1

By Chika Shiomi. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Bessatsu Hana to Yume. Released in North America by Viz.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect of this new shoujo series going in. I was pleased to see it ran in Betsuhana, as Hakusensha licenses have been very slim ever since Tokyopop collapsed. I hadn’t read either Yurara or Rasetsu when Viz put them out, though, and mostly what I knew was ‘does supernatural romances’. And I suspect that’s what this is as well, but at least for the first volume, the romance is very much on the back burner. No, this is a manga that draws you in very simply: the premise is terrific, and you want to see more of the characters. In the end, that’s what makes for an exciting title.

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Our hero is Yukari, a teenaged author who’s already famous for the astounding realism of his Edo-era works. He meets a girl who’s infatuated with his books, but she’s shocked to find that her impression of him is almost 100% wrong. Writing for Yukari isn’t so much writing to please an audience or even himself, but merely being able to conjure up the Edo period. At first we think that this series is going to start the girl, Mahoro, and deal with her goofy attempts to get the quiet, reserved guy to like her. But then Yukari collapses, and when he wakes up he finds himself in his past life – as an Oiran in the Edo period.

Yes, that’s Yukari on the cover, both as his present-day writer self and his past life. He’s not particularly good at imitating his past self’s attitude and mannerisms – or even getting the walk right – but seems to be picking it up as he goes along. Moreover, many of the people he sees in the past also seem to be reincarnated in the present, though they may not realize it – including the Oiran’s beleaguered bodyguard, who reminds him of the girl he’s just met. Why is he time-skipping? Well, we don’t find out in Volume 1, but given this series is only four volumes long, we should know very soon.

This is very likeable. Yukari is a bit standoffish, but he’s not a jerk like many shoujo heroes start off as. Mahoro’s a bit eccentric, and a bit quick to jealousy, but also comes across as very likeable. It will be interesting seeing whether Yukari can jump-start the past life memories in others – towards the end of the book we see Mahoro immediately despising a new arrival, but having no idea why – the reader has already guessed it’s actually her unconscious recall. The art, as you can imagine given it’s an old pro and this is Betsuhana, is also gorgeous, with just the right amount of superdeformed silliness to add spice.

So I’d actually call this series a mystery more than a shoujo romance. What’s going on with Yukari? Is he doing this in order to solve how “he” died in the past? Will memories of their past lives screw up any relationships in the present? I’m not certain, but I definitely want to know more. A very strong debut here.