Wonder!, Vol. 3

By Akira Kawa. Released in Japan by Futabasha, serialized in the magazine Women’s Comic Jour. Released in the United States by Futabasha on the JManga website.

When I left off with Vol. 2 of Wonder!, I was wondering whether the extremely uncomfortable plot twist that ended it would be brought up again in the third volume or just glossed over. In a way, it’s both. But I’m OK with how it resolved, as having it any other way would just give me the creeps (as indeed it does to Kaori at the start of the book). That said, it feels a bit of a cop-out, and makes Kaori’s mother even less sympathetic than she already was. But then, that’s one of the main things about this series: family are always there, even if you try desperately to avoid them, and they always bring their own issues to the table. And not all families are perfect.


That said, the main family – Kaori, Taiyou, Kota and Miya – still tend to be a bit better than you’d expect. Problems that affect them mostly come from outside sources, and even the one time there’s a big screw-up – Taiyou trusts a mother that he bonds with at the zoo to take his girl to the ladies’ room, only for the mother to run off with her – it’s something that resolves in a rather pat way. As for Kota, when your worst flaw is that you’re sometimes too direct and a bit reserved, you’re clearly a great kid. He gets to show off how he deals with both kids and creeps in this volume, and his awesomeness is (so far) rewarded. Only Kaori really seems to have major issues here, and that’s mostly from the fallout from last volume. Everyone’s just a bit too perfect.

However, the author does seem to be trying to shake things up. Kota’s cousin Kaito, who looks very similar to Kota except for his height, arrives, and proves to be a giant pain in the neck. He’s under pressure from his mother to live up to his siblings’ success in school, and it’s driving him to acting up. He’s clearly meant to contrast with Kota, as the cast lampshades, and almost causes Kota to show an actual emotion. His mother, though, once revealed, explains much of his behavior – she’s even worse than Kaori’s mom (and in fact allows Kaori’s mom to have the upper hand for a bit), and makes your nerves grate. Kaori notes to Taiyo that part of the reason they agre4ed to their ‘open marriage’ at first was simply to avoid dealing with each other’s family, and we’ve come to see why.

And throughout all this there is the dog Wonder, who still has odd traces of the supernatural to him, being able to instantly show up whenever there is trouble, even if he’s also still at home playing with the kid. The family seems to have quietly accepted it as ‘awesome dog powers’, but given that said dog has saved their lives multiple times, I can see why they’d want to gloss over and explanations in case they ruin the fantasy. It does add an odd touch to this off-kilter soap-opera of a manga, which never quite allows me to find my footing. While the lack of stability can be annoying, it’s also probably why I find it so fascinating. I want to read more about these people to see how they tick. Yes, even if it means dealing with their families. Here’s hoping for Vol. 4 soon.

Wonder!, Vol. 2

By Akira Kawa. Released in Japan by Futabasha, serialized in the magazine Women’s Comic Jour. Released in the United States by Futabasha on the JManga website.

The second volume of Wonder! (which has just ended in Japan, by the way, and is 17 volumes total) continues the types of stories we saw in the first. It’s a story about what it means to be a family, in all the myriad ways: husbands and wives, parents and children, and the multi-generational aspect of everything. It also touches on childcare quite a deal, and might actually strike some as being a bit heavy-handed at times. I think the writing and characterization is so strong, though, that it overcomes any issues it might have.

The protagonist role continues to switch back and forth between forthright and emotional Kaori and her reserved and quiet adopted son, Kota. Having jumped forward about 9 years in the first volume, this one settles down into his final years of high school, as the manga seems to have been picked up as a series fully by now. Kota’s future is not so certain, though. He doesn’t really want to go to college, and is content to simply start working full time at the snack bar he’s been with. Everyone seems to wonder if this is really the right choice for him, though… especially as he seems to brim with unfulfilled potential. As the volume goes on, a new possibility makes itself known: Kota is really fantastic with kids, and it’s brought up that he may want to look into being a caregiver of some sort. Whether he takes this up or not is another matter. Kota is not quite as hard to read as his father, Taiyo, but it’s clear he’s at that age where he doesn’t want to burden his family but also doesn’t ant to leave.

As for Kaori, if she seems angrier than usual here, it’s mostly because her mother has moved in with them temporarily, after getting divorced from what appears to be her fifth husband. It’s lampshaded right away that Kaori and her mother are far too similar for their own good, though Kaori certainly comes off better when we compare; her mother is written as deliberately antagonistic most of the time, and picks fights constantly. Just as much as this series is about family, it also seems to be about communication, and how hard it is to really get anything across even when you *do* mean well. Kaori has always been upset with her mother for ruining her second marriage (the first, which led to Kaori, ended with her father’s death from illness). And after a long series of arguments, her mother finally reveals the real reason that marriage fell apart. Kaori is stunned, and rightly so, but… you also feel sympathy for her mother, as really, how do you begin to bring that up with a child?

It can be argued that Kori and Taiyo’s family is a bit too perfect, especially compared to the other family we get to know in this volume, which involves both spousal and parental abuse. There’s an interesting discussion of disciplining a child – Kaori is adamant about hot hitting her child, partly due to the real reasons that it’s not a good thing to do, but also because of her own memories of being hit as a kid. When the abused young child of a different family comes to live with them for a short period, Kaori is frustrated that he’s acting up and lashing out – the child even attacks Wonder, the titular dog! Kaori is stunned to realize that at one point she wanted to strike the boy, and her mother cynically notes, “Did you think that you were perfect?” Well, she may have – her own child, Miya, is adorable, well-mannered and behaves, she and her husband have resolved the whole ‘open marriage’ thing from last volume and seem to have bonded. It’s easy to be judgmental towards someone whose problems you’ve never dealt with.

As with Volume 1, this volume ends with a one-shot story about an unrelated couple. This one has a bit of a fantasy aspect – a young wife who’s feeling stressed out and uncertain about her marriage, especially as her husband is ten years older than she is, finds that an older couple have moved in next door to him – and not only are they eerily similar, but there even seem to be future echoes of the fights that she and her husband have. The revelation here was more obvious than I’d have liked – anyone who’s read speculative fiction will get it right away – but I still enjoyed it, especially as it examinees the fact that choosing to live with someone the rest of your life can be a scary and terrifying thing to do… but is ultimately really sweet.

In case you’re wondering, Wonder does appear throughout, and still appears to have that ’empathy’ superpower and ability to always find a person in trouble that he had previously. In fact, Kota may share the same ability – the parallels between Kota and Wonder are numerous. As for Volume 3, I’m definitely awaiting more, despite a cliffhanger ending (was it a cliffhanger?) to Chapter 9 that made my jaw drop – let’s just say that the most serious part of the manga was dragged uncomfortably back and given a light, almost offhand touch. I’m not certain how morally dissonant it was meant to be, honestly, and to say more would be to spoil. But for anyone wanting a josei manga about family and raising children, Wonder! is a fantastic choice.

Wonder!, Vol. 1

By Akira Kawa. Released in Japan by Futabasha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Women’s Comic Jour. Released in the United States by Futabasha on the JManga website.

I got blindsided by this one a bit, I will admit. The blurb and cover made it sound a lot fluffier than it actually is, and also that it would be far more about the dog. Now, rest assured that Wonder (the dog) is a large part of this manga, but it’s not a manga *about* a family getting a new dog. That’s just the starting point. What Wonder! gives us is a manga about what it means to be a family, even if it’s non-traditional, and how bonds with other members of that family can affect how we grow and learn – even if we’re adults.

The author of Wonder! is Akira Kawa, an old-school shoujo and josei artist who’s been doing manga since 1968. In the 1970s she was a mainstay at Shueisha’s Margaret magazine, and now that she’s at the age where she can do whatever she wants, she’s at Futabasha drawing manga for their josei magazine for housewives, Jour. Her wikipedia page says that her manga seem to specialize in family, and it shows; this is a well-thought out work. It’s fairly clear from reading it that it was initially conceived as a one-shot; then another chapter was added later, and finally the last two chapters were put in before it got picked up as a ‘series’. This happens a lot, especially in shoujo manga. Thankfully, unlike other examples, we don’t have to be reintroduced to the characters every single chapter.

Wonder, it must be said, starts awkwardly. Its heroine, Kaori, is not particularly likeable at first. We see her drunk on a park bench, pouring out the plot – I mean, her heart – to a stray dog, who turns out to be the titular Wonder. She’s married to Taiyo, but according to her it’s an ‘open marriage’ where both of them are free to date other people. She may think this is what she wants, but it’s fairly clear watching the two of them that this is not making either of them happy. Things are further complicated by the arrival of the dog, who follows her home, and a 9-year-old boy, who arrives when Taiyo’s sister dies. Dies? Or was she killed? It turns out that the boy, Kota, may have seen something suspicious…

For a while I wondered what genre Wonder! actually was. The first chapter combines family drama with mystery, and sees Kaori slowly warming up to Kota, who she clearly did not want living with them at first. There’s also a bit of a supernatural element to it, but it’s very mild – Wonder has a sixth sense for people that can be similar to Lassie at times, and also seems to have lived long beyond what his natural life is. But ‘family drama’ sounds about right – despite the thriller and mystery aspects, this is at heart a story about a family trying to find its footing and deal with everyday life.

Kota becomes the second protagonist starting in Chapter 2, when the series moves forward six years. He’s now in high school, and has grown up to be the star of your typical high school shoujo manga – except he has no girlfriend. He’s just a nice, pleasant, vaguely aloof sort of fellow, good at sports and good at school, but not really understanding other people. (This runs in his family, of course.) The one girl he seems to have a crush on is one that he knows isn’t going anywhere – Kaori, who by now is pregnant with her first child. (This gets brought up a few times in the volume, but I don’t think it’s meant to be squicky – it’s the typical misplaced love bonding kids get sometime). The last half of the book sees him start to make friends… but not with who we think he will. This was the better written half of the book, with some genuinely surprising twists.

Lastly, there’s an unconnected short story afterwards, which is far more serious. It deals with a family whose teenaged son commits suicide. They are stunned, as they had no idea he was anything other than happy. As the mother searches for answers, she discovers that he had been bullied at school… and that bullying in Japan is as hard to prove as ever, with the school doing its best to absolve itself of guilt and also indicate that she and her husband are to blame. There’s no easy answers in this one, just a family trying to deal with their grief, reach out, and hope that they can avoid the same thing happening to their younger daughter. It’s heavy stuff, but again it’s very well done.

There are a few drawback to this volume, of course. Kaori, as I noted, takes a while to become likeable, and in Chapter 2 seriously considers having an abortion when she finds out that she’s pregnant. (She doesn’t. This also has one of the funnier parts of the book, where she notes at work that she’s pregnant and the entire male office staff tenses up before she notes it’s her husband’s baby.) Her husband Taiyo is one of those guys who’s hard to read, typical of such manga where we’re meant to empathize with the heroine, and doesn’t develop as much as I’d like – we do see he has a silly side to him, and certainly he and Kaori love each other in their own way, but I hope future volumes flesh him out. Lastly, their are two timeskips – six years after the first chapter, and about a year and a half after the second – which can make it a bit hard to connect.

That said, I was surprised how much I really enjoyed and connected with this manga. The characters are well-written, they all have their own voice. Kaori is a fun, imperfect heroine, yet you can clearly see why guys would fall for her. And like adopted mother, like son – Kota is clearly hot high school crush material, but needs to be able to get along with other people rather than holding them at arms length. the series is still running in Japan 8 years later, and has 14 volumes out to date. A few future volumes feature Kota with what appears to be other high school children, so I suspect I will get my wish. Wonder! is a great manga for adult women who grew up reading high-school shoujo, but now want to read manga by the same writers about grown-ups as well. Definitely recommended.