[2018 Anime post is incoming… soonish]
[ Last year’s post: 2017 Manga Year in Review! ]

[ Standard disclaimer: Spoilers! Lots of spoilers! ]

Ranking is looser here than it is with my anime lists. I don’t explicitly number or score them, so don’t read much into the ordering.
Also, my comments will be kept a lot shorter than with anime because this is just a heck of a lot to write about at once. oops I lied

Complete
Series that I’ve finished this year:
Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou
Sakura Trick
Hanayamata
Koufuku Graffiti
Citrus
Mabataki Dekinai

Ongoing, New
Series I started this year but which are still ongoing.
Konohana Kitan
Nettaigyo wa Yuki ni Kogareru
Kase-san
Kyuuketsuki-chan x Kouhai-chan
Majime Girl to Seishun Lingerie

Ongoing, Other
Brief comments about ongoing series that I started last year, or started this year and only have a limited amount to say about because I’m still retreading anime material:
• Centaur no Nayami
• Flying Witch
• Gakkou Gurashi
• Harukana Receive
• Hinamatsuri

Complete


Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou
(Tsukumizu | Shinchousha / Bunch Comics | 6 volumes | Complete | Bookwalker Listing)
(click to hide)

I did a write-up on volumes 1-5 last year, only to learn soon after that it would be ending with volume 6. But I still want to include comments of some sort in this year’s post to acknowledge what an achingly beautiful story this was – and why it’s without question my favorite manga of all time.

Shoshuryo has always emphasized Chi and Yuu’s solitude, but they’ve nonetheless always had someone, or something, to talk to before. It was Kanazawa in volume 1, Ishii in volume 2, the fishery robot in volume 3, Nuko and the mushroom aliens in volume 4, and the suicidal AI in volume 5. That ends abruptly in the final volume. There isn’t a single page on which they converse with another intelligence, real or artificial. They don’t even stumble across any more of the of the old video recordings from times past. They are utterly alone.

Even the nature of their environment takes on a lonelier tone this volume. The colossal, decaying ruins that frame their journey have been a source of danger, but they’ve elicited feelings of awe and wonder as well. Chi and Yuu are nomads, and every day they know they’ll see something new. No matter how dilapidated and dead it may be, it’s a sight they’re laying eyes on for the first time. And it’s quite likely they’re the first people to have done so in many years.

And there are moments like that in this volume too, but the sense of perpetual progress that drove forward the first five volumes gradually fades. We know there is an end coming, and the journey now has a defined limit. The monumentality of these urban ruins now seems like a reminder of all the things Chi and Yuu will never know, sights they’ll never experience. Because the world is large – far too large for two girls and an old kettenkrad.

As they near the uppermost floor, the girls encounter a book. The book becomes a pile, which leads to a bookshelf, which is just one small part of a wall of books. As they reach the top and our vantage point widens, we see what may well be the entire collected wisdom of humanity, stretching on without end.

A monument to humanity’s ability to discover and convey a staggering amount of knowledge, narrative, and life experiences. A monument that stands neglected and forgotten, and as a reminder that, almost certainly, not one author of any of these books still lives. Countless ideas were recorded in the hopes that they would one day be shared and found useful, or moving, or simply amusing. Chi is the only one left who could appreciate them, but a thousand lifetimes would not be enough. And she only has one to give.

Yuu would often tease Chi about all the books she was lugging around but hadn’t yet read. How could either of them possibly have known how much deeper that went? The comfortable intimacy of their daily lives has always been challenged by the enormity of the world around them. But this moment feels different. The scope of it all feels too vast to compute.

Chi and Yuu eventually leave the library behind, just as, soon enough, they’ll be leaving everything behind. But the first loss is the one that hurts the most: their kettenkrad. Their home.

Their motorized partner had seen plenty of malfunctions and accidents and accompanying repairs, but it always soldiered on. Until now, at least. Stray debris rips up the treads and the engine gives out, and no amount of emergency repair is going to cut it this time. Chi gets increasingly agitated while working on it, taking her frustration out on Yuu and working late into the night. Eventually she gives up. “It’s reached the end of its lifespan.” As if it were a pet, or even a loved one. It’s not just broken, it’s dead.

In a flash of inspiration composed of equal parts frustration and brilliance, she instructs Yuu on converting their gutted home into a makeshift bath. They revel in the momentary luxury, but the emotions quickly overwhelm Chi. She cries. She’s gives herself over to Yuu’s embrace. She knocks back their last alcohol and thanks their metal friend for all it’s done for them.

And then they continue onward, leaving behind everything they can’t carry. Even though they’ve been on a journey this entire time, the sight of them leaving the kettenkrad behind feels like they’re leaving home all over again, just like they did when they fled their previous life and started this adventure.

As they trudge on, they lose more and more of their dwindling possessions, some because they’re no longer needed (Yuu’s gun) and others they have no choice but to expend them (food, fuel, water). A journey that’s been melancholy but also wondrous starts to feel increasingly like a death march. Getting to this point has already drained them dry, and the strain becomes particularly heavy on Chi.

Explaining how reading these pages felt is almost impossible. In the back of my mind, there was still a faint lingering hope that there would be something awaiting them at the top. The aliens will welcome them into a beautiful new world. Or they’ll find a community of survivors. Or at the very least, they’ll manage to stock up on supplies, grab a new vehicle, and keep moving.

But their supplies start to run out. No restock looks likely. Chi is at the limits of her endurance, physically but also emotionally. She’s even forced to burn her precious books for warmth, including the volume that Yuu accidentally singed early on in their journey. What seemed like such sacrilege then is simply survival now.

It’s unclear how long they continue on like this. They walk, they burn resources for warmth, they sleep. Then they get up and do it again. Nothing about this is romanticized. The eerily gorgeous vistas and fascinating encounters with ancient technology that punctuated their travels before are gone. The art is increasingly sparse. Dialogue is gradually replaced by unspoken thoughts. Indeed there’s a marked increase in internal monologue from Chi in this final volume. It’s like the world weighs so heavily on her that she can’t even work up the energy to voice her feelings.

One of Chi’s favorite philosophical games to this point has been pondering what it means to be “alive”. Was a fish alive in the same way they were? What about an AI? I never got the sense that this particularly scared Chi, more that it was a curiosity than anything. But the fear creeps in now. The loss of the krad, of her diaries, of all the things they’ve held onto for so long all makes life and death far less abstract of a notion. Dreamless nights create a space between sleeping and waking that, she wonders, might be what death is like. It’s scary.

But each morning the chilly air jostles her awake and her eyes open. Maybe that’s the absolute bare minimum of what it means to be alive. But they aren’t dead yet.

Then, they find the staircase.

The pages that follow depict some of the most hauntingly intimate moments two characters have ever shared. The lantern gives up the ghost as they ascend, and they’re plunged into darkness. No light, no sound. Their only conversation is unspoken words and tightly clasped hands. Reading this volume was like standing outside, staring into the heavens, and watching all the stars in the sky wink out of existence, one by one, until nothing remains but your own breathing.

The darkness descends upon them like a cocoon, the world disappears, and within the blackness they dissolve, intermingle, unify, and are transformed. They’ve become one. They’ve become the last girl in the world.

We know now how this story ends. They reach the top. At the end of their struggle against dilapidated infrastructure, murderous robots, and the constant threat of starvation, the reward that awaits them… is nothing. Nothing but the endless starry sky.

Maybe it sounds saccharine or quaint to watch them stare near certain death in the face and protest, “but at least they have each other!”. And yet, that counts for something. For them, it counts for everything.

There’s still fear, second-guessing, and indignation upon realizing that this is all fate had in store for them. Chi wonders if they could have followed another path, done something different, avoided some mistake. In her characteristic way, Yuu has the right answer, and the only answer. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about all that. But wasn’t living just the best?”

Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou ends with graceful ambiguity. The very last exchange Chi and Yuu share is “So, what are we going to do from now on?” “Well… for now, let’s eat, get some sleep… and then we’ll think about it.”

After finishing the final chapter, Tsukumizu tweeted that they were struck by a sense of loss the likes of which they’d never before felt, and it brought them to tears. While I can’t understand it to the same depths as the series’ creator, I still understand it as a reader. Something indescribably beautiful was conveyed through this story. Knowing that it’s over leaves me with a hole that can’t be filled.

But the existence of that hole is itself meaningful. That’s why I try to resist the temptation to over-analyze the ending. “What do the mysterious marks on the stone mean, they weren’t there when Chi and Yuu were sleeping!” “If they died there, why is the blanket (and their bodies) gone?” “Did they get taken away by the alien[?] creatures?”

We don’t know, and I don’t think we need the answers. No meaning they’d offer is truer than what bloomed between Chi and Yuu as they ascended those dark stairs, grasping each other’s trembling hands. “If the world has no meaning, make your own meaning” is a powerful theme, and meaning in this story is inherent in Chi and Yuu themselves. They are each other’s meaning. They always have been. And yes, they lived in a dead, empty, silent world.

But. They. Lived.

[Back to Top]


Sakura Trick
(Tachi | Houbunsha / Manga Time Kirara Miracle | 8 volumes | Complete | Bookwalker Listing)
(click to hide)

There are very few things I love more than Sakura Trick. Explaining why is never straightforward, but the feeling has been with me for these last five years now, ever since the anime aired, and it hasn’t gone away. Its character writing isn’t as incisive as Yagakimi, nor is it’s art remotely so gorgeous as Citrus. It’s even a 4koma, a format that I find to be inherently limiting and harder to read. So… why? Well these comments are probably going to get really long anyway, so I may as well digress into my experience with yuri in general.

There was a time starting a decade and half ago where we got a few yuri series, or at least what passed for yuri in the 00s. Almost all of the series from around 2003-2006 had some caveat to attach or problematic aspect to deal with. But they still managed to hatch the nascent love for yuri that had been incubating for me ever since I experienced my first doomed ship way back in Serial Experiments Lain. Yamibou, Kannazuki, Marimite, Simoun, Kashimashi, Strawberry Panic; these and occasional pairings in other shows were what did it (NanoFate and ShizNat both date from Fall 2004, for example). But afterward, at least by my recollection, the genre went quiet for years.

Then, finally, came the summer of 2009. The premier attractions were Sasameki Koto and Aoi Hana, and even frickin’ Kanamemo managed one of the most openly gay side couples in a slice of life show then or since. But as far as I can tell, none of these titles made any splash at all. The genre laid dormant again until Comic Yuri Hime’s flagship title Yuru Yuri got adapted, and as much as I love that show its “tease everything, confirm nothing” approach felt dated even in 2011.

Three years later in Winter 2014, enter Sakura Trick. Not only was this a show with girls kissing in the first episode (fuck your subtext), it was a Manga Time Kirara series. Yes, the magazine that has honed to a science the “everyone is gay as hell, but we’ll never say it” slice of life trope.

I don’t think I can say Sakura Trick is outright responsible for the yuri adaptation boom of the last year, because there were much bigger shows like Madoka that developed huge yuri fandoms, even if those shows weren’t yuri anime per se. But I do feel like it was important part of ensuring that a pure expression of the genre maintained some kind of anime foothold. (Pure not as in “chaste”, but as in a series centrally and explicitly about lesbian love.) More importantly for me though, it was exactly what I was looking for at the time.

We can argue the “subtext vs text” debate until we pass out, but it’s always going to be a compromise between ensuring that obvious subtext isn’t erased (a denial tactic popular with homophobes) while also vehemently demanding that it not be the only way these couples are depicted, because we should expect more. I mean, for goodness’ sake, manga has carved out a small but resilient niche for unambiguous canonical lesbian relationships over a period of decades now, and I don’t see any plausible reason for anime to settle for less.

Is yuri defined solely by kissing on screen? No of course not. Characters don’t need to kiss for their love to be clearly established (just look at Flip Flappers). But it is nonetheless a significant and powerful expression of love for most couples. It means something!

Well, the Sakura Trick girls kiss. A lot. This series, particularly as a Kirara slice of life series, felt like a shot across the bow of conservative approaches to yuri in the Yuru Yuri era, saying “See that? They’re the protagonists, and they can do that! Doesn’t have to be in the last episode either! They can do it as often as they want!” So I was immediately taken with Sakura Trick, because it felt like something yuri anime needed to be far more open to exploring.

And with that, I guess I’m finally at the point where I originally intended to start my comments.

Any discussion of Sakura Trick has to start with its approach to physical intimacy, right? If anyone knows anything about Sakura Trick, it’s “oh that’s the gay kissing manga”. And yeah, fair enough, kissing is a core part of its identity.

But what does the kissing mean? What’s the message? Initially there isn’t a clear one, and that’s one of the most genuinely refreshing things about Sakura Trick as a romance story. By establishing kissing as a baseline to their relationship, it eschews the traditional story development that treats kissing as a sacred end-game that you only reach once you’ve cleared all the emotional obstacles along the way. And that trope is weird, right? I mean, is that really how most people encounter it?

I don’t talk about my personal relationships much because they were a long time ago and are things I now (being what I guess would be called aromantic) consider mistakes. But if you asked me which of the many romance stories I’ve seen or read that rings most true to lived experience, it’d honestly be Sakura Trick, at least in this one regard. Teenage love is about libido. It’s about finding the next place to make out, not finding your soulmate. If that is what eventually comes out of it, awesome, good job. But that was never how I or anyone I knew went into it. There are base desires driving these relationships that run far ahead of the emotional maturity needed to process the long-term significance of your feelings.

While Sakura Trick is still undeniably a romantic comedy, with all the jokes and dramatic embellishments that you expect, it still gets that physical/emotional lag. Dismissing this out of hand as “Ah, it’s just kissing for the sake of fanservice” because that’s not how “serious” love stories do things is to be ignorant of what it’s trying to do.

The ways in which emotional intelligence plays catch-up is the central conflict of Haruka’s story. The varying speeds at which she and her friends come to reconcile these questions provides multiple perspectives that add texture to her relationship with Yuu.

Because this is a question that takes Haruka the entire series to finish answering (long after Yuu has arrived at her answer!), it’s mildly regrettable but understandable that an anime that could only run one cour had to end where it did. As well done as the adaptation is in general, I can kind of see how someone could view the classroom conversation between Haruka and Yuu and think the show was clinging to the faintest hints of ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. But the ending was true to where they were emotionally at that point, and it wasn’t even halfway to where the story would eventually end (this scene is halfway through volume 3 of 8).

And this is why the kissing is so fundamental to getting me to buy into the story. If you put that ending on another show where there had been no physical intimacy, it would read differently, and less convincingly. But because Sakura Trick had already established its theme of “emotional lag”, I could appreciate how it ended, even if it made the lack of a sequel all the more painful. There was no room to downplay or deny their sexuality, because their sexual attraction to each other’s bodies couldn’t have been more firmly established. Simply by acknowledging the physical aspect of a relationship, it bought itself insurance against less charitable interpretations of their relationship (at least from people who were paying attention).

In short, there’s a difference between two characters musing on the meaning of love while chastely looking at each other and doing it while repeatedly making out with each other. Physical intimacy isn’t a crude adulteration of pure emotional love. It’s a normal and healthy part of finding out who you are in most (though not necessarily all) relationships.

Haruka is an avid observer of other girls’ love. While this serves a comedic purpose of putting her in the position of the shipper, her outward perceptiveness is contrasted against the blind spot in her own heart. She loves seeing girls in love, and actively cheers them on, but has trouble transferring that understanding to herself.

When she does eventually get there, it comes through re-evaluating her emotions in the context of those around her. In Kotone and Shizuku, she sees a relationship that posses the same physical intimacy as hers, but with significantly more emotional maturity. In Kaede, she sees an example of (initially) unrequited love and the ways in which a person can compartmentalize parts of their personality as a defense mechanism against rejection. Haruka does exactly this with Yuu, at first unconsciously and later on in desperation as the fiction she’s constructed erodes. I’d even argue that part of why she’s so excited by the prospect of Kaede and Yuzu getting together is that, on a subconscious level, it lets her act out her romantic fantasies with Yuu in the safe space of someone else’s relationship. In Mitsuki she feels what it’s like to be loved romantically, even if she takes a long time to process it. In Rei and Runa (new student council members in the third year) she sees the stereotypically chaste yuri couple, who share confessions well before their first kiss or even hand holding. As normal as they would be in most any other yuri manga, here they represent the exact opposite of Haruka’s relationship, almost like a counterweight pulling her back into balance.

Even Sumi plays an important role. It’s not immediately evident, especially when her imouto play with Haruka kind of goes off the rails shortly before her graduation, but what she provides for Haruka (who is an only child) is an example of what it’s like to be absolutely adored by someone without the relationship being physically or romantically intimate. Everything that helps her zero in on what makes her relationship with Yuu different from her other relationships is vital to her eventual emotional maturation. And it’s ultimately Sumi who sits with Haruka during her darkest moment. She listens to Haruka explain how she met Yuu and why she’s so protective of their relationship. And Sumi helps her break through the final mental barriers keeping her from acknowledging what she wants to be to Yuu.

This isn’t only Haruka’s story. Yuu is often our point of view character as well, and the time we spend with her has made her not just my favorite character in this series, not just in all of Manga Time Kirara, but also one of my favorite characters period.

Yuu is introduced as the slightly bratty and childish half of the pair. This feeling is only exacerbated when we meet her older sister Mitsuki, the widely respected student council president (and a signficant physical contrast to Yuu as well). In retrospect this almost feels like an intentional misdirection given how relationships play out later, because eventually you realize that Yuu has reached emotional maturity much faster than Haruka. She can be stubborn or selfish at times, but she understands what she and Haruka have long before Haruka does.

The ways in which Yuu handles this are particularly interesting. Because Haruka is so prone to jealousy, Yuu consciously reigns in her own. Because Haruka is so unrestrained with her displays of affection, Yuu tries to moderate their behavior. Because Haruka can be clingy and dependent, Yuu is the one who creates distance when she feels the relationship needs it. But above all, Yuu is patient (oh so very patient) with Haruka.

Yuu is willing to simply wait until Haruka is ready to open up, even when she would have been justified in pressing for an answer directly. She bears the burden of that anxiety because she knows she’s more emotionally equipped to handle it than Haruka is. It’s not that this is a one-sided or abusive relationship by any means (Haruka is emphatically not Citrus’ Mei or even Yagakimi’s Touko), and Yuu isn’t perfect all the time either. She’s a horny teenager too! And some of her patience is simply a side-effect of her discomfort with discussing sensitive emotions.

But the flaws just make her human, and I admire her greatly. If she seems somewhat less active in the latter parts of the manga, it’s only because she’s already reached the peak of her character arc. And there she waits, patiently, for Haruka to reach her.

Patience doesn’t imply passivity, however. When Haruka introduces the term “kissing friends” to describe their relationship, Yuu asks Haruka what she means when she says “love”. Haruka dodges answering multiple times, until Yuu’s patience (justifiably) runs out. When confronted directly by Yuu with a request to officially be lovers (恋人同士) and not just friends with a “special relationship” (特別な関係), Haruka attempts to silence the conversation with another kiss. But this time Yuu stops it and delivers an ultimatum.

This is hard for them both, but Yuu does what must be done. I like to think she sensed that this was the appropriate time to stop indulging Haruka. Haruka’s increasing desperation to define their relationship in “safe” terms was evidence that Haruka had seen enough of other people’s love to understand (albeit not yet admit) that her current approach to the relationship was unsustainable.

In the end, Haruka manages to complete the jigsaw puzzle that is her jumbled emotions, and she and Yuu become lovers. Or rather, they acknowledge a reality that had always existed and only now possesses the proper name. As they embrace and kiss, one of them – it’s not clear which, but it doesn’t matter and that’s exactly the point – says the obvious:

We’re already lovers“.

I’d be negligent to treat the other couples as if they only existed to further Haruka and Yuu’s love, because they’re truly excellent in and of themselves. I could talk about all of them but to keep these comments from being infinitely long, let’s just talk about the most important ones, Kotone/Shizuku and Kaede/Yuzu.

Kotone and Shizuku have known each other since childhood, and are the yuri veterans of the series. They’re not initially public about their relationship, but they are the first (and only, come tor think of it?) girls Haruka and Yuu see kissing. In these two we some of the same insecurities that plague Haruka and Yuu, and in significantly more complicated circumstances. But Kotone and Shizuku always seem to have a better grasp on their feelings, a sign of the maturity Haruka yet lacks.

Kotone lives with Shizuku after fleeing home and an arranged marriage. Love winning out against an imposed fiance is a standard yuri trope, but Kotone’s situation comes with an interesting twist: her fiance (Sora) is a woman. Her father is oblivious to this (Sora identifies as a woman but seems to view gender expression somewhat fluidly; mostly though, Kotone’s dad is just not the sharpest tool in the shed), which in theory makes getting out of the arrangement simple for Kotone. All she has to do is tell her father about Sora, and he’ll call the whole thing off. But Kotone refuses to do that. What good is it to use gender as an excuse to get out of one relationship if the same argument could be used to separate her and Shizuku?

This creates a somewhat agonizing situation for Kotone, who spends literally three years in limbo over it. But when Kotone needs help, Shizuku steps up. In the confrontation with Kotone’s father, Shizuku steps in before Sora can out herself, professes her love for Kotone, and asks for her hand in marriage. It’s a fantastic moment for a character as timid and non-confrontational as Shizuku, and since this is a happily-ever-after sort of story, naturally Kotone’s father is forced to relent. It’s such a “Hell yeah, Shizuku you badass” moment and I love it.

Kotone and Shizuku end up the farthest along in their relationship of all the couples, and that makes perfect sense. They had the biggest head start, and they’re by far the most mature of all of the girls – the college-aged ones included!

And then there’s Kaede and Yuzu. Even back during the anime, Kaede fascinated me. There was never any doubt that Kaede loved Yuzu, but the ways she expressed that were so different from everyone else. Haruka may have erected some emotional barriers, but Kaede built fortresses, with her heart locked in the deepest cell of the deepest dungeon. Unlike Haruka and Yuu’s “special relationship”, Kotone and Shizuku’s matured relationship, Runa and Rei’s chaste lovey-dovey relationship, or even the feelings harbored by Mitsuki and Rina, Kaede had no obvious outlet for her feelings, and pining like a love-stricken maiden was simply not in her nature.

Instead she emphasized other facets of her personality to hide the feelings she assumed Yuzu would never accept. She was the playful prankster, with Haruka and Yuzu as her favored targets. She was the hard-working student council member, reliable and trustworthy enough to advance to president in the third year.

She was also the keen observer who gently pried into others’ relationships at every opportunity, looking for some kind of validation for her own feelings. And she was the crybaby who took it hardest each year at graduation, first for their senpai and then for herself. She, more than anyone among the students of her year, truly loved the school and worked incredibly hard to see it through its final year before closure. And she did all this while burdened with feelings she couldn’t speak and multiple personas to juggle. Each time a tiny sliver of Kaede’s feelings slipped out in a longing look or an unguarded smile, my heart melted. And so did Yuzu’s, ever so gradually, any time she noticed.

Kaede would quickly cover up by pulling a prank or poking fun at anyone who reacted emotionally to her slip-up. But much of her teasing was unprompted too. She used humor as a pretext for getting reactions out of Yuzu and others, either to gauge their feelings for her or to get a sense of whether she was alone in all this. Part of her built defenses, and another part was constantly prodding those defenses for weakness, silently hoping that one day she’d expose too much, blast open the walls, and be free of her burden. Kaede was a girl at war with herself.

While Haruka and Yuu are still the core of the series for me, I was tremendously invested in Kaede by the end. And that’s why one of the highlights of the entire story is the climax of hers. Moved by a film they all produced in their final year, she finally reveals her feelings to Yuzu. But after years of building up defenses in a self-constructed fantasy in which Yuzu could never possibly love her back, she framed this as an apology and farewell. But as Kaede she turns to leave, Yuzu yanks her back with an ‘I’ve got something to say as well!”. Then Yuzu storms into the castle, levels it, and frees Kaede’s heart trapped within.

Sakura Trick will never get quite as much credit as it deserves, for plenty of reasons. A complicated and often hypocritical relationship with physical intimacy in the yuri fandom, the manga’s nature as a comedic 4koma, various entirely arbitrary definitions of what counts as a “serious” romance, and whatever else it is that causes people to write it off aren’t things I can do anything about.

But it’s special to me. As we quickly approach the 5th anniversary of the anime’s first broadcast, I’m so glad to have finally experienced it all.

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Hanayamata
(Hamayumiba Sou | Houbunsha / Manga Time Kirara Forward | 10 volumes | Completed | Bookwalker Listing)
(click to hide)

Even before I picked up the manga, this had been one of those rare series that grew in my mind more each passing year, and my feelings for it were ever more positive. Most series fade over time, but a show I only originally placed a mere 7th in its broadcast year is, as of the time of this writing, in my top 15 of all time.

As is going to be a common theme in this post, reading the manga (volumes 6-10 were post-anime) only made me love it more. And that despite the considerable handicap it has compared to the anime, given the loss of sound and motion in their performances. The final performance of the show ranks among my favorite scenes in anime, whereas its manga counterpart could never have hoped to have the same impact. Print simply cannot mimic Hana leaping up to grab the naruko at the exact moment it clacks in-song as fireworks explode. But manga does have one massive advantage… it actually finishes the story!

And of course the anime wouldn’t be so powerful if it weren’t for the incredible characters, which shine in any medium. From Hana to Naru to Yaya to Tami to Machi to Ran to Wako, the Yosakoi club keeps growing in size as the series progresses, and each character shakes up the dynamics. They bring enthusiasm and friendship, but also quite a lot of baggage. That baggage gives Hanayamata a more dramatic edge than a lot of Kirara series. There’s often a knee-jerk reaction from a large (or at least loud) portion of slice of life fans when a cute series sends its characters through emotionally fraught territory. I think is unfortunate because it places some limits the genre. The number of people I’ve seen say they like New Game! s2 less than s1 because the latter was more drama-focused still baffles me, for example. For me, that more incisive exploration in s2 of the characters established by s1 was was exactly the appeal.

Hanayamata may be more up front with its emotions than most, but I certainly don’t see that as a bad thing. As long as a story’s emotions feel true to the characters expressing them, that’s what matters. The Hanayamata(wara?) girls are no exception, and their strongest reactions always tell us what they value most. And that which they value most is each other, of course.

Student council president Machi and vice president Tami are the seemingly perfect power couple whose initial weaknesses involve familial baggage. Tami, a many-talented yamato nadeshiko, adores her father to the point where she’s unable to form her own identity in a misguided quest to meet (what she perceives to be) his expectations. Machi, the no-nonsense bespectacled natural leader, harbors resentment towards her older sister Sally, a resentment born of both admiration and abandonment. These conflicts establish each character’s hidden weakness, and in both cases they only resolve the issues by allowing themselves to be vulnerable to their friends. In the melting pot of that embarrassment and passion, feelings mix and a stronger bond forms.

After that theirs is a story of passing the torch to the next generation and then deciding what their future together is going to be. Normally a middle school series like Hanayamata wouldn’t be able to get all that much dramatic mileage out of graduation. Middle to high school is not the big break that high school to college is, after all. But never fear, it mines that drama vein for all its worth, because Machi is potentially pursuing a special medical-track high school!

But like I said, intense drama is great if it suits the characters. This situation has echoes of Machi and Tami’s original conflicts. Tami doesn’t completely mold herself into Machi’s ideal woman the way she did with her father (she’s learned from experience that this is impossible), but she does backslide a little into suppressing her dreams in order to stay with Machi. Meanwhile, Machi finds herself in almost the reverse of the situation between her and Sally. Now she’s the one potentially going away to pursue her dreams, leaving behind someone who adores her.

Much of the credit for their ability to resolve these tensions lies with their underclassmen. Seeing Hana, Naru, and Yaya grow strong enough to worry over them is proof that Tami and Machi mentored them well. And that pride turns to gratitude as the girls facilitate their reconciliation.

Naru’s character arc is a fairly traditional one for her variety of introverted protagonist: unexpectedly meets a charismatic new girl, gets pulled into an exciting new world, gradually improves her self confidence despite numerous setbacks, and becomes a happier person for it. Nothing new, but executed very well.

Where Naru really shines as a protagonist is in the ways she’s able to take what she’s been given and use that to grow stronger and give something back. She actually reaches the peak of her character arc quite early. I’d honestly have to point to partway through the sixth volume, just a chapter or two after the anime concludes. She comes down with a bit of post-show funk after their successful performance, but once the other girls snap her out of it the rest of the series feels like pretty smooth sailing for Naru.

Not that there’s no more conflict, but her role takes the form of friendship-fixer and advice-giver, particularly when it comes to Wako-Ran and Tami-Machi. In the second half of the show, Naru becomes a lot like what Hana is all along – someone who harnesses her love for her friends to help everyone be happy. Naru’s transformation is exemplified by a moment at the end of the manga where she supports a nervous Hana, who in turn declares Naru her “gentle hero”. Heroes are Hana’s passion, and Naru has always viewed the brave, energetic, outgoing Hana as her own hero. For Hana to use that precise word to describe Naru means a lot. That’s who Naru has become – not just someone who gets inspired, but who is capable of inspiring others.

But what’s done well with Naru is taken to another level with Yaya, one of my favorite characters ever. Yaya’s journey is one in which she gradually improves herself and lives up to the cool, confident persona she puts on.

Everyone loves Yaya. She’s gorgeous, talented, smart, and mature. She’s everything Naru aspires to be, but that adoration is a mixed blessing. Yaya thrives on Naru’s starry-eyed gaze, yet in building her identity around living up to the ideal espoused by the girl she loves, she’s vulnerable to any shift in their relationship. When we initially meet Yaya, her whole conception of self requires weakness from Naru. It’s not a conscious or malicious act of Yaya exploiting Naru for her own gain, but their unhealthy dynamic naturally produces something extremely fragile. When Hana comes on the scene and Naru starts changing in ways Yaya isn’t prepared to deal with, that fragile ego shatters, and the resulting meltdown is painful and ugly.

The rest of her story is a humbling exercise in piecing her ego back together, this time bonded by the much more resilient glue of a relationship between equals. Naru still looks up to her, and Yaya’s surface personality is still “cool and dashing”, but she allows herself to be more honest about it. She no longer requires Naru to rely on her in order to feel good about herself. This stronger, reinvigorated Yaya finally becomes the girl everyone saw her as, and she leads the charge as the bearer of the torch that Tami and Machi pass on.

Never is this more evident than when she meets Ran.

If Hanayamata were a math quiz, Ran’s arc would be the mangaka satisfying the requirement to “show your work”. She is the proof of everyone’s growth.

Ran is one of two major new characters in the second half of the manga (along with Wako, who is quite fun but mostly there to highlight Ran’s story), and she is the primary driving force behind volumes 6, 7, and 8. Ran’s story involves her being antagonistic towards the club, then joining, then reconciling with Wako and her old team. Hanayamata came first of course, but if you watched Anima Yell this Fall, think of Ran as Hizume and Kana rolled into one.

The reason Hanayamata can focus on Ran so extensively without feeling like it’s abandoned the existing members is that Ran’s arc serves not only as her own satisfying story, but as the ultimate realization of all their stories, particularly Yaya and Hana. Naru plays a big role in helping Ran open up too, but it’s the antagonists-to-awkward-partners dynamic between Ran and Hana that gets things going, and the sympathetic “I was like you too, once” relationship between Ran and Yaya that seals the deal.

That latter dynamic is particularly wonderful. Ran is, unequivocally, crushing on Yaya (Everyone Is Gay For Yaya), and makes it clear that she sees the girls around Yaya as her rivals in love. (Ran’s introduction actually forces a lot of the romantic tension in the series to the forefront, even if Hanayamata kinda wimps out on most of it.) She admires Yaya immensely, and is in love with her cool, mature exterior. At the same time, she’s also got a lot of the ol’ tsundere in her, and has a hard time letting down her haughty persona, particularly around the much less experienced members of the yosakoi club.

So Ran is the starry-eyed Yaya-admiration of early Naru plus the fragile emotional facade of early Yaya. In exposing us to Ran and letting the other characters guide her through her issues, it becomes so obvious how much our girls have grown. And Yaya takes this very seriously. She sees in Ran all her most painful memories acted out before her eyes. Just that self-awareness is already impressive, but moreso is her resolve to face it head on and ensure that Ran is extended the same kindness that she was.

Lats but certainly not least, it’s the heart and soul of the club, the chipper little transfer student and yosakoi-enthusiast from Princeton, New Jersey, Hana N. Fountainstand. The most surprising thing about Hana isn’t any dramatic trauma or sudden character growth, but rather how constant she remains throughout the series. I don’t mean that negatively at all. In a cast as emotionally volatile as Hanayamata’s, a stable gravitational force like Hana is vital to preventing everyone else from being flung out of orbit.

Hana is reliable. She’s easily excitable, occasionally pushy, and isn’t quite as confident as her extroverted personality implies, but through everything, Hana stands firm. From the first moments you see her fruitlessly recruiting for new members and practicing on the roof alone, there’s a quiet strength and courage in her that I find so admirable. And the sheer joy she radiates when she finally finds people who will learn to share her intense passion for yosakoi is warm enough to melt the coldest of hearts.

Naru admires confidence and so is drawn to Hana, but she’s also the one who best understands that Hana’s strength is a result of hard work. In terms of physical practice, sure, but also the hard work of swallowing her anxiety and making herself emotionally vulnerable in order to pursue her passions. This is something Naru could not do without help, but Hana persevered alone. Eventually everyone comes to see in Hana what Naru sees. While their immediate reasons for joining the club vary, there’s something about Hana that they all acknowledge is special (however begrudgingly, in some cases!).

Hana’s role in the latter half of the manga is often to be the rational third party coming up with ways to sort out her very dramatic friends. Superficially this may seem to be at odds with her excitable personality, but it’s really no different from the role she played in bringing Naru and Yaya back together, way back during their original meltdown. Hana is constantly putting in the hard work to needed to make these relationships function.

She does it because she loves them, and she loves yosakoi, and she loves doing yosakoi with them. They’re her friends, her teammates, her very reason for staying in Japan. There’s a scene where Ran is challenging Hana (who she incorrectly assumes is a rival for Yaya’s affections) to a yosakoi competition to judge who the best is. This is maybe the first time that we learn that despite her technically being the veteran of the club, Hana isn’t actually all that good, at least compared to someone with experience on a big team like Ran or Wako. But all the girls like Hana’s performance better. Ran has the technical precision, Hana has the heart. Ran is dancing to win, Hana is dancing to make the people she loves happy. That’s just the kind of girl Hana is.

As we near the very end, Naru has been tasked with preparing the lyrics for their upcoming performance. As she reflects back on all the gifts of friendship and love she’s received, she’s overwhelmed at the prospect of distilling those feelings into words. When she’s truly lost, she reaches out to Hana. Hana invites her out, then recreates their dramatic first encounter.

The first time around, a nervous and timid Naru ran away from Hana’s offer. But so much has changed since that night. This time, Naru has the courage to take her hand, the courage to get up on stage, and the courage to proudly transmit her her feelings of gratitude to all who are willing to listen. 伝われ!

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Koufuku Graffiti
(Kawai Makoto | Houbunsha / Manga Time Kirara Miracle | 7 volumes | Complete | Bookwalker Listing)
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When I finished the anime, I was in love, but also in mourning upon realizing how good the setup was for a continuation we’d inevitably never get. Not seeing how it continued would be agonizing, because I was sure it would be so, so good. Fast forward a couple years, and now I can unequivocally confirm that, yes, it was indeed fantastic.

Of all the themes Koufuku Graffiti did well, what’s stuck with me the most even half a year after finishing it is the emphasis on family. It’s introduced immediately during the first night Kirin stays over at Ryou’s place. She recognizes Ryou is still dealing with the death of her grandmother, and in her awkwardly earnest way, she makes a suggestion: she wants to be Ryou’s family. She wants to fill the hole left by all the people who aren’t with Ryou, either due to distance, work obligations, or death. (Kirin offers “father, mother, brother, sister, anything!” to which Ryou suggests “Husband and wife?”, and Kirin immediately agrees. …Just saying.)

While there are a million things this series is great at, it’s great at them in ways that many other slice of life series are. That’s why I feel like it’s worth digging into one particular aspect that it’s almost uniquely skilled at: adults.

What Koufuku Graffiti does unquestionably better than any other high school slice of life series is embrace and explore its adult characters. Ryou, Kirin, and Shiina are the focus, but the adults around them become absolutely central to their story.

Koufuku does everything it can to humanize its adults in ways you so rarely see in stories about teenagers. When parents or guardians are present at all, they tend to be of relatively little importance, and that’s ignoring cases where they’re actively antagonistic. Parents and other adult figures simply don’t get a lot of depth, and while that works just fine for the vast majority of slice of life stories, this one shows how powerful it can be when those characters are given a chance to be something more.

The important adults in Koufuku are the lion’s share of the cast: Ryou’s grandmother, Ryou’s mother (Midori), Ryou’s aunt (Akira), their neighbor and school librarian (Yuki), Shiina’s mother, Shiina’s head maid (Tsuyuko), and Kiirin’s mother are all important. That’s seven major adults to our small cast of three teenage girls. As the story progressed, I got a sense that it intentionally avoided adding many younger characters (Yuki’s sister, a 20yo college student, is as close as it gets) in favor of fleshing out the adults it had already introduced. This was an uncommon but interesting choice that paid off far better than I could have ever hoped.

When I emphasize that Koufuku “humanizes” its adult characters (particularly the mothers) what mean is that they’re are allowed to feel anxious, jealous, or inadequate – to feel human. These women watch their children(/nieces/employers/students) grow up and find their place in the world, and as much as this is a source of pride, it brings worry as well. They all deal with that worry in complicated ways.

The common thread for all three mothers is, at the risk of oversimplifying, a fear of being unneeded. They come at this from different directions, but the anxiety ends up being expressed in similar ways.

For Shiina’s mother it’s the not entirely unwarranted feeling that Shiina sees Tsuyuko as more of a mother than her. As the head maid of Shiina’s household, Tsuyuko has been with Shiina every day since she was a very small child, far more often than her parents were. In a hundred little ways, we’re shown how much Shiina’s loves Tsuyuko like she would a mother, and as heartwarming as this it, it only deepens her actual mother’s feelings of guilt.

For Midori, Ryou’s mother, the feeling is only magnified. Ryou’s parents are overseas performing a secret, unspecified job that is allegedly vital to national security. At first this is played off as one of those cheeky comedic pretexts stories employ to get adults out of the picture. And I really wouldn’t be all that shocked if it actually were intended to be no more than that initially, with the emphasis on mother-daughter relationships only becoming a priority as the story matured. Like Shiina’s mother, Midori has left her daughter in the hands of others (her mother and her younger sister), and has missed out on so much of Ryou’s life.

For Kirin’s mother, the situation is different, if challenging in its own way. She’s been there actively raising Kirin until quite recently. It’s not a caretaker or a relative that Kirin’s mother starts feeling inadequate in comparison to – it’s Ryou. In these pivotal high school years it’s Ryou who is always there for Kirin when she needs it most. And the feelings of inadequacy are also related to Ryou’s skill at cooking. In a manga that uses food as a binding metaphor for all human relationships, the fact that Ryou is a far better cook is genuninely threatening to Kirin’s mom’s self esteem. Then add to that the embarrassment of admitting to yourself that you’re envious of a kid your daughter’s age. Oof, rough.

The list of adults dealing with feelings of inadequacy isn’t limited to mothers. Yuki lives in the same apartment as Ryou and Kirin, and most of their interactions are Yuki receiving, rather than providing, help. She feels more like their younger sister, and the fact that she actually has a capable little sister of her own only twists the knife deeper into her pride. As the adult in the relationship and as their school librarian, she feels the need to act responsible and reliable. But given how competent Ryou is, Yuki rarely gets a chance to do that. And then there’s Akira, Ryou’s aunt and current guardian. Much like Shiina’s mom and Midori, she too is often busy with work, and can’t be there for Ryou as often as she’d like. Ryou’s smiling stoicism in the face of such loneliness just intensifiies the nagging in Akira’s conscience to a scream.

It’s easy to write this kind of story and inadvertently shame working women for valuing their careers in ways their male counterparts are never challenged over. Koufuku handles this by ensuring each mother-daughter pair have a chance to reach mutual understanding and strike a balance without incrimination, shame, or blame. Shiina’s mother-daughter moment is sweet, but the lion’s share of the time is spent on Ryou and Kirin so that’s what I’m focusing on. Shiina has other concerns she’s preoccupied with, which we’ll address later…

The moment between Kirin and her mother comes on a trip the two of them take to Osaka. Kirin’s mother comes fully prepared to pamper Kirin, because the Kirin she knows best is a good-natured but slightly spoiled glutton. What was exasperating while Kirin lived at home is now exactly the Kirin her mom is nostalgic for. This trip is an attempt to turn back time to when she felt like the most important person in Kirin’s life. And yet, Kirin politely rebuffs her attempts at selflessness at each turn. When mom realizes that Kirin was restraining herself for her mom’s sake, suddenly it all clicks. Kirin truly has grown up, but that hasn’t diminished how much Kirin loves her. It’s okay to let go of the old Kirin and embrace the new, because in the end, they’re both her daughter – and she’s still, and always will be, her mother.

The last pair to reconcile is Ryou and Midori, and the scene is a thing of beauty. On a temporary return to Japan for New Year’s festivities, Midori gets to see what a wonderful young woman Ryou has become, and every morsel of relief she gains from this is accompanies with a double-sized serving of guilt and regret. But in a moment in which Ryou makes herself vulnerable while reminiscing about her grandmother’s death, Midori finally voices that which she’s kept inside for years out of fear.

Desperation: “I’m sorry I left you alone. I want to talk to you about so many things. I want to know more about you. So please, tell me what you’re thinking. I’d be happy to hear anything at all.”

Hesitation. It takes Ryou some time to process her feelings – days or hours, I’m not sure. Just as Midori is about to give up and try to repair things more slowly, Ryou finally opens up: “I was always lonely. When you weren’t at home because you were busy, when you went overseas for work, I was just so lonely. But if I said anything selfish I’d just worry you. When grandmom died I thought ‘How aren’t you here at a time like this?’ but if I said that, I was scared it’d just drive us farther apart.”

Painful silence. Midori knows she must ask the hardest question: “And what do you think of me now?”

Outpouring: “I love you. But because I love you so much, I could never say it.”

Reconciliation: “Well… what do you know? We both felt the same way. I wish I’d asked so much sooner. I’m so sorry… and thank you.”

The final chapter of Koufuku Graffiti is told almost entirely from the perspective of Ryou’s grandmother. We see Ryou’s birth, early childhood, and her parents leaving. We see her growing up intelligent and beautiful, but prone to bouts of loneliness. We see the fading view of Ryou’s face in her grandmother’s final moments. But the scene continues, now from the perspective of her smiling photograph’s picture frame. We see Ryou alone and despondent, then back to cooking again, then meeting Kirin, and then, finally, surrounded once more by friends and family.

It’s possible neither Ryou nor Midori would have been able to open up without remembering the advice of the woman in that picture frame. She was selfless and kind, but like all of them, thoroughly human. The impeccable cooking that Ryou remembers so fondly didn’t come naturally to her grandmother. She studied and practiced and worked through countless failures in order to create something they could bond over, something that could fill those holes in Ryou’s heart.

In one of my favorite sentiments expressed in any story, Kirin tells Ryou that memories shouldn’t be thought of just as static things from the past. Memories are also something you can anticipate and strive towards. By drawing strength from those happy memories of their mother/grandmother, Midori and Ryou are able to reaffirm a relationship that will generate happy memories for decades to come.

I’ve already said so much, too much, and I’ve not even touched on the relationship between the three leads. Not the strange and hilarious ways the girls bond over their extravagant reactions to tasty meals. Not the ways in which they fervently prepare for a future after high school. Not their struggles to accept that college may take them in different paths (they end up unintentionally moving to roughly the same place, of course). Not Kirin’s own fear of being replaced when Ryou’s parents come back.

But I will mention just one thing: Shiina’s unspoken love, which grows and grows and grows until it finally bursts out, impossible to contain when faced with Ryou’s kindness. I’m generally not a fan of characters suffering from unrequited love like this, but the elegance with which the scene is handled leaves it achingly bittersweet, rather than tragic or cruel. We don’t hear Ryou’s reply over the emotional tempest roaring through Shiina’s mind. But we do see her blushing smile, and understand Shiina’s relief.

Even though Shiina’s feelings don’t appear to have been reciprocated in the exact form she may have hoped, she was at least given an opportunity to voice them at all. And as unsatisfying as it may feel for this to come up in the middle of the last volume and not be mentioned again until a bonus page (granted, a really good bonus page), the mere fact that Ryou heard Shiina’s words and accepted them – if not as a lover, then at least as a dear friend – means so much. The acknowledgement of Shiina’s love provides what so many girls in her situation are denied: validation.

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Citrus
(Saburouta | Ichijinsha / Comic Yuri Hime | 10 volumes | Completed | Bookwalker Listing)
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My comments about the anime can be found here, and since the anime was a close adaptation of the first four volumes, I won’t repeat any of that here. Instead I’d just like to look at why, despite enjoying the anime, I think the best material comes later on.

And there’s a really clear-cut answer as to why it improves later on: it drops the “trouble-making new love interest” conflicts, and allows Mei and Yuzu work together rather than against each other. This benefits both characters, and everyone around them, immensely.

To be fair the first transition kinda started in the anime’s last arc. Unlike Himeko and Matsuri, Sara was a pretty sweet girl all along and her crush on Mei was good-natured. But the structure of the arc was still “new girl drives a wedge between Yuzu and Mei”. The frustratingly passive role Mei played in this arc didn’t help either, and it put her character development on ice for a while.

But the next protagonist (Harumin’s sister, Mitsuko) isn’t a love rival, she’s a rules-enforcer who sees Yuzu as a negative influence on the morals of the school. We also meet Nene, a hardcore Harumin x Yuzu shipper (Saburouta with the wonderfully meta call-outs) who in addition to being adorable and funny also gives Yuzu an opportunity to play the senpai role in a way that the excessively precocious Matsuri would never allow. After that there’s Suzuran. She did have a crush on Mei but it’s frankly more intellectual fascination than romantic. It also isn’t what introduces drama between Mei and Yuzu, instead it just provides a different perspective on their relationship.

We do get an arranged marriage plot for the finale however, and that drives the biggest wedge of all between Mei and Yuzu. But the context isn’t the same. It’s sort of tough to explain the difference, but the fact that Mei and Yuzu have already confessed their feelings to each other before this happens makes a world of difference. The conflict becomes “will their love overcome?” (and we know it will of course), not “will they ever understand each other?”.

And that gets into the crux of what makes the latter half of this series work better than the first: Mei and Yuzu are in it together. No matter how many times they fight or get physically separated or restrain themselves emotionally in a misguided attempt to protect the other, they’re ultimately still walking in the same direction. Yeah, there’s a lot of “if only you would talk to each other” in here, but to Citrus’ credit the most immediate misunderstandings always addressed by the end of a volume. There isn’t much that lingers – though it’s fair to mention that I restarted reading this when it was almost done, so I got to mostly skip the interminable wait between chapters. That helps.

I liked all of the post-anime material, but volumes 5 and 6 are probably the best of the series. They see the most direct interaction between Yuzu and Mei, and they serve as the bridge between the antagonistic early days covered by the anime material and the the ring/arranged marriage drama of the final volumes. This section validates the less polished material that came before, gives the more problematic characters time to redeem themselves, and greatly strengthens the core characters relationships such that they’re able to weather the conflicts at the end. It’s just a really fantastic series of story arcs!

None of Mei and Yuzu’s conflicts feel quite the same after that, and it’s all for the better.

In the interests of not going insane given that I’ll probably pass 20,000 words between this and my 2018 anime post, I’m not going to say nearly as much about Citrus as I could. I think the most important point is just to reiterate how vital Mei’s character arc is to this series. Of course I like Yuzu and plenty of the side characters, particularly once they’re rehabilitated, are a lot easier to like than Mei is. But I feel like you have to recognize how far Mei comes in overcoming both internally and externally destructive tendencies if you want to get anything out of this series (and maybe you don’t – that’s fair too). Appreciating Mei’s arc takes effort, but her eventual progress is so satisfying.

And that’s really what it comes down to, the manga finding a way to pull together all of its disparate messy pieces and make everything work. It corrected a lot of its early missteps, continued to build out Yuzu and Mei’s relationship, and got its story told. That’s exactly what I was hoping for when I finished the anime and picked the manga up, and that’s what I got. There’s still a few things I wanted to see that we didn’t have time for – Matsuri x Harumin WHEN – but it did what it needed to.

It’s still Citrus, of course. It’s still a wild, melodramatic, thirsty, crazy ride. You’re not going to get the subtle elegance of Yagakimi or Nettaigyo here. And it’s almost openly dismissive of certain aspects of storytelling – just look at the enormous middle finger Saburouta gave to the entire epilogue. I cackled my ass off the whole time as it switched on the warp drive and zoomed through the whole clean-up phase. I had to admire how blatantly few shits she gave about writing the “and this is how we convinced Mei’s fuddy duddy grandfather and everyone else in society who would object”. She wanted to write romantic melodrama between messed up horny lesbians, and she got to be successful doing just that. Fuckin’ good for her, that’s living the dream. I respect that.

And now the Citrus+ spinoff has started. Citrus is many things, some of them bad and many of them good. In the end, I’m just excited as hell to be back with all these chaotic gays.

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Mabataki Dekinai
(Yukio Yuki | Ichijinsha / Comic Yuri Hime | 1 volume | Completed | Bookwalker Listing)
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I was attracted to this by the “NPC falls in a love with a player” yuri romance premise, but unfortunately it turned out that this was an anthology, not a whole volume about that. Still, each individual work in the anthology was endearing in its own way. But the NPC chapter definitely stole the show.

Lolo is a largely nondescript NPC in some nondescript MMO, stuck giving out low-level HP restoration drinks to players as they pass by. Most either ignore her or complain her items restore too little health… but there’s one player, Kirika, who stops by every day and seems to appreciate her. Kirika talks to her, and even though Lolo can’t reply, she’s happy.

After Lolo is slated to be removed as an NPC in an update, Kirika organizes a big group of players at the last minute to wish her a fond farewell. The happy ending comes when Lolo’s data is reintroduced into the game as a “buddy” NPC that Kirika can bring with her. It’s silly and sappy, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t touching.

The other chapters in the anthology are totally worth checking out too. Yukio Yuki is an author I’m hoping to see more from, between this and their really cute doujin series “Joshidaisei ga Goukon de Onee-san ni Mochikaerareru Hanashi” [Bookwalker listing].

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Ongoing, New


Konohana Kitan
Konohanatei: (Amano Sakuya | Ichijinsha / Comic Yuri Hime S | 2 volumes | Complete | Bookwalker Listing)
Konohana: (Amano Sakuya | Gentosha / Denshi Birz | 7 volumes | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)

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Because this is primarily a slice of life manga (albeit of a much more melancholy variety than usual), I feel like the comments I made about the anime do a reasonably good job of outlining its themes in broad strokes. But even if those comments describe how warm and emotionally intelligent Konohana is, this series only gets increasingly powerful as it goes on. So I’ll be focusing on a few specific stories in these comments, as further examples of why it’s so special.

As good as this series is normally, volume 4 in particular was just transcendent. The collection of stories that comprise it are all among the best it’s ever offered. While some of the post-anime volumes have spent much less time with Yuzu and Satsuki than I’d like (Amano Sakuya is really fond of the miko characters, apparently!), even the time that isn’t spent with them is excellent. That’s a real testament to how good this story is.

One of the biggest story beats in the post-anime material has been an extended look into Kiri’s past. Working at Konohanatei as a young girl, she befriends, and falls in love with, a geisha named Yae. It’s later revealed that Yae is Sakura’s mother, which gives some context to Kiri and Sakura’s unusual relationship in the present day. But despite the manga returning to Kiri’s backstory multiple times, we still don’t have the connection between then and now. The last chapter of the most recent volume actually ends on a fairly shocking development in their story, so this is one of the plot threads I’m most keen to see tied together.

The emotional core of the backstory however deals with Kiri herself. Bumped out of the line of succession in her family by the birth of a little brother, she leaves home to work at Konohanatei. There’s unmistakable shades of Satsuki’s current predicament (working at Konohanatei because her sister inherited the coveted miko role instead). And it’s Kiri’s desire to be independent that leads her to neglect forming relationships with the other Konohanatei attendants – still sounds familiar, huh? She is quite gifted and intelligent and thus this state of affairs is sustainable for a time, but eventually she learns that no one can get by in total isolation. Opening her heart up to Yae is the catalyst for opening herself up to her coworkers as well, and helping her become the mischievous but outgoing and fundamentally kind person she is today.

The rest of volume four is a diverse sampling of the types of stories that make this series so special. There’s a absurd, over the top, dream world where we get to see the series flex its comedic muscles while also further exploring how deeply Satsuki has fallen for Yuzu. A lot of the development between them happens in incidental moments like this, rather than in chapters actively dedicated to fleshing out their relationship. While I hope that balance shifts to more overt focus in the future. this and so many other scenes do succeed in making it abundantly clear how in love with each other they are.

The other two stories in this volume explore Konohanatei’s role as a liminal space.

One guest moves on to the next world. She’s a bitter old woman who claims that nobody is going to miss her or cry for her when she’s gone. She spent her life taking in stray cats, as a sort of self-imposed penance for a childhood pet dog she could not save. Many of the cats she took in were too sick, too frail, and died despite her best efforts. And so now it’s time for her to die as well, as forgotten as any of those strays.

But there are other guests at Konohanatei that day. It’s a large contingent of rambunctious nekomata. And in a lovely moment of realization, we discover that they’re all the souls of the cats she could not save, but nonetheless showed kindness to in their last moments. And the kindest gifts she game them were names. For as Kiri says, “A name is proof that they lived.” And so she passes on to the next life, surrounded by the lives she gave meaning to – and the childhood pet she did actually save, just in not in a way she could have understood at the time.

The other guest returns to the world of the living. This chapter is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. A boy arrives at Konohanatei, and finds he has gained the power of a god. Everything he draws becomes real, and he helps other souls using this new ability. Eventually he encounters a young girl who is nothing but a pair of feet. With a surge of confidence, he sets about using his power to start giving her a body.

But this is where we’re reminded once again that Konohanatei is not a permanent residence. It is only a way station, and all of its guests eventually need to make a choice: this life, or the afterlife. For this boy, the choice is particularly harsh: ascend to a form of godhood, or return to this life, where he’s currently pinned beneath the wreckage of a bus, cradling a young girl in his arms as they both cling desperately to life. It’s a young girl whose feet have been crushed… the same young girl he’s nearly completed creating a new body for.

Many of the guests who come to Konohanatei should, and must, move on. But some still as yet have an option to choose this life. This life with its pain and suffering and disappointment, yes. But this life also has a young girl with an adorable smile and a long life ahead of her, if only this boy is willing to keep his promise with her. Even if it means returning to a wrecked body and a useless arm that he’ll never draw with again.

He chooses life. And in doing so, he saves two.

The only thing I found to criticize about the Konohana Kitan anime is that it was so good at so many things that it tried to do them all and one cour just wasn’t enough. But the greater time afforded to the manga goes a long way towards addressing that shortcoming. It still swings though an extraordinary range of emotions over the course any given few chapters, but it does it without the looming deadline that is a 12-13 episode adaptation.

Because Konohanatei exists in a gap between worlds, where time is subjective and reality is malleable, as a setting it gives the story freedom to explore a wide variety of concepts. Ultimately I hope that it will resolve all of its core character relationships before it finally ends, because I’m far too invested in all of them now for it not to. But until then, its ability to weave diverse and emotionally poignant vignettes about souls on the precipice of life and afterlife remains a truly remarkably thing to witness.

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Nettaigyo wa Yuki ni Kogareru
(Hagino Makoto | Kadokawa / Dengeki Maou | 3 volumes | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
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While I’m still more emotionally attached to some of this year’s manga that I originally encountered through anime, this is absolutely one of the most impressive things I’ve read in 2018. Nettaigyo has the potential to become one of the best yuri manga I’ve ever read. If anything it has so much potential that I’m not even sure I want to try to write about it yet, lest I jinx it. I mean the publisher describes is as a ガールズシップ (girlship) manga, which is a super weird phrase that only brings up two topics on google: Nettaigyo and a, uh, brothel ship from One Piece. It’s mildly concerning that they’ve invented a new phrase for it when we have perfectly serviceable words already. But the other reason I’m not sure how in-depth to go is that it’s still in a long set-up phase with the relationships. I can’t really talk about its overarching themes or how they all tie together when it’s still spooling out the narrative thread. That’s not to say it’s lacking in juicy character interactions to dive into, but any sweeping evaluation of the series feels premature. Still, it’s just way too good to not gush about for a bit.

What’s clear already though is that what Nettaigyo does best is establishing well-worn character tropes and then executing them with compassion, elegance, and wit. On the surface they’re all the kinds of characters you expect: Konatsu is the new transfer student who struggles to make friends. Koyuki is the seemingly perfect senpai that everyone respects but finds unapproachable. Kaede is the loud genki girl. Even the eventual reversal of these initial expectations isn’t, in itself, novel. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Koyuki may be perfect in the eyes of those who don’t know her, but in private she’s a big lonely gay mess. Konatsu is shy around most people, but is really quite a normal girl when you get to know her. Kaede acts like she hasn’t a care in the world, but she’s definitely got something she’s hiding…

Everything here is familiar, but it’s never in the archetypes themselves that a story is made or broken. Where a good story makes these archetypes shine is in how they interact. Just knowing that Koyuki is actually an awkward girl isn’t the same as seeing her be charmingly awkward around Konatsu. Just knowing that Konatsu is capable of interacting with people confidently sometimes isn’t the same as finding out that it’s specifically Koyuki where this behavior comes naturally to her. Just knowing that there’s more to Kaede than what’s on the surface isn’t the same as seeing her appear before other characters in specific moments and wondering exactly what she’s gunning for.

(Incidentally, this series is also unusually good with the male relatives. Huge shout-out to Koyuki’s dad, who goes above and beyond to facilitate Koyuki’s friendship with Konatsu. I honestly even think he’s partly aware of, and subtly encouraging, their budding romantic feelings. Koyuki-papa is just a darn good ally. Konatsu’s dad hasn’t done much yet, but he seems alright. Koyuki’s little brother seems like a decent kid, acts his age, and has been effectively used as a mirror through which Koyuki can see some of her own shortcomings in someone so similar to her.)

Most of the enjoyment of Nettaigyo admittedly just comes from watching Koyuki and Konatsu awkwardly navigate their feelings while blushing furiously at each other. But there’s so many excellent moments of character exploration during those interactions that it’s always doing a little more than just being a mundane slice of life interaction (not that there’s anything wrong with those). They’re both constantly pondering what the other is thinking, poking and prodding to try to figure out what they mean to each other. Koyuki’s feelings are the far more overtly romantic at this point, and her physical attraction to Konatsu is strong. Konatsu’s musings are often inwardly directed, but one of her biggest hang-ups is trying to understand why Koyuki called out to her that day they first met during an open exhibition from the aquarium club. The amount of time they spend thinking about each other hasn’t granted them a full mutual understanding, because they don’t yet understand themselves well enough (certainly Konatsu doesn’t, at least) to realize what the other sees in them.

But this isn’t a narrative propelled purely by misunderstandings. Far from it – one of the things I like most about Konatsu is her penchant to be direct (even unintentionally) when Koyuki really needs it. It happens in small ways like her giving Koyuki her phone number after Koyuki spends hours agonizing over how to ask for it. Even when the story walks the well-worn path of “I’m doing a thing in secret for your sake, but because it’s a secret you just think I’m avoiding you”, Konatsu doesn’t let the volume end without allaying Koyuki’s fears. It’s this proactive confidence that Koyuki seems so fascinated by. (Well, that and Konatsu being extremely pretty – senpai has a libido too, okay?) One of the more amusing examples of how this plays out is the ways in which Konatsu’s very ordinary teenage girl behavior seems almost enticingly scandalous to the slightly uptight Koyuki.

Of course, Konatsu isn’t as confident elsewhere as she acts around Koyuki. She has to struggle to voice her thoughts, and doing so is scary for her. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the scene where she’s sitting with one of Kaede’s friends and listening to her talk about how perfect – and thus unreachable – Koyuki is. Konatsu knows that’s a total fiction, but when she objects, she’s straight up told “No way, don’t ruin my image of her”. Praise of this sort isn’t really praise. It’s isolating and dehumanizing, and it’s exactly the thing that has isolated Koyuki for so long.

For Konatsu to stand up for Koyuki and challenge this girl’s image of her isn’t easy. To do it with someone who she literally just became friends with (friends being a commodity she has in very short supply) is tremendously courageous. But that’s exactly what she does. Konatsu doesn’t fully understand why this is so important to her yet, but she’s getting there, day by day.

I’m extremely excited to see where this goes. Thankfully the next volume is finally out this month. Nettaigyo has set the stage beautifully to this point, and I can only hope we’re about to start the next act of their relationship.

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Kase-san series
(Takashima Hiromi | Shinshokan / Flash Wings | 5 volumes | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
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I had read a bunch of Kase-san years ago before losing track of it. With the OVA coming out this year, I started back over from the beginning back in June and then got all caught up.

The material I’d already read (which I think was a lot more than I had realized at first) was as charming as I remember. Kase and Yamada’s relationship strikes a balance of cute, awkward, horny, and sincere that makes it pretty easy to understand why this has been one of the more well-known yuri manga. There’s a wholesomeness to their relationship without sacrificing sexual tension and physical intimacy. While it’s not quite as sharp as Sakura Trick in this respect, it still challenges the weird dichotomy that often arises in yuri between puritanical chastity and outright pornography.

I also think the art style is unquestionably part of that. Takashima Hiromi’s loose and playful approach to her characters’ designs gives this series a uniquely recognizable visual identity. There’s the semi-circular smiles, the adorable chibi art, the trademark flower sprouting from Yamada’s head, the radical changes in art style to emphasize a reaction, and just the general crisp and pleasing “normal” designs.

One aspect of Kase-san that’s both its strength and weakness is the fact that it’s actually taking their relationship out of high school and into college. Why this is a strength is obvious, because so few high school couples ever get that far. But at the same time, my goodness has the series ever been stalling on actually doing it. I’m glad I waited so long to get back into reading this, because in real-world time the scene that ends the anime OVA (Yamada racing after Kase at the train station) is from 2015. As of the last tankoubon chapter from this year, they’d only just moved into their respective college residences.

I got the sense that Takashima was reluctant to take that next step, hence bizarre decisions like spending yet another whole chapter at the start of volume 5 depicting Kase and Yamada before and during the time they first met. We have seen that so many times at this point, from every possible angle. And honestly, I was downright annoyed when that’s how volume 5 started. I think part of the manga’s problem is that it’s so intensely focused on just two characters. To be fair in some ways that’s a strength too, but it contributes to the feeling that the story treads water sometimes.

But the volume picked up after that, and it ended on a hugely important development in their relationship: Kase (Tomoka) calls Yamada (Yui) by her given name for the first time… and then they have sex. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I mean, fuckin’ finally they’re finally fuckin’.

Not because it was vital for us to see them do each other, even though it was nice to see it depicted in a way that didn’t compromise elegance for passion or vice versa. Rather it’s because Yamada’s seeming lack of knowledge about sex was getting increasingly hard to accept as a believable character trait. She’s no stranger to thirst, and she’s quite aware of the ways Kase looks at her too. There are series where you can get away with this kind of obliviousness (even if it still tends to be obnoxious), but sexual desire has always been a driving force in their relationship. It’s not that Yamada should ever feel compelled to do something she’s physically or emotionally uncomfortable with. But there’s no reason to believe such discomfort was actually present.

This volume left off with Tomoka and Yui (which seem like the appropriate names to use now) moving forward. They’ve physically moved to a new city, they’ve grown emotionally closer (given names), and physically closer as well, and they’ve taken huge steps towards adulthood with their studies and future careers. As halting as the journey has been been at times, the Kase-san series is now ready explore a phase of life so few high school couples ever get to.

…As long as volume six doesn’t open with forty pages of flashbacks.

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Kyuuketsuki-chan x Kouhai-chan
(Yoshioka Sakaki | Kadokawa / Dengeki Comics Next | 3 volumes | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
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I’ve read two of the three volumes that are out. To be perfectly honest, I picked this up because I follow the artist on pixiv and because Tonari no Kyuuketsuki-san had me in the mood for some vampire yuri that wouldn’t limit itself to milquetoast slice-of-life subtext. And hoo boy does this one ever dispense with all the subtext and just Get Into It. It’s a very thirsty series, but it’s more than just fanservicey. It won’t win any awards for the most subtle writing, but if you want a good, sexy, melodramatic vampire yuri manga, so far this seems like an excellent choice.

The core conflict arises when we find out that the “hanayome” (girls who give blood to a vampire) only have a life expectancy of a year after they’ve first been sucked. Neither Iris (our vampire) or Sara (our human) learn this until it’s too late. And so now we follow them as they try to navigate a passionate relationship that has a ticking doomsday clock hanging over it. I’m not completely opposed to tragic endings if a series does an insanely good job selling me on it, but I kind of adore this awkward horny couple so I’m willing to give this series a pass on any deus ex machina bullshit it needs to pull to let Sara live, no matter how ridiculous. Fingers crossed.

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Majime Girl to Seishun Lingerie
(Tachi | Kadokawa / Comic Dengeki Daiou g | 0 volumes | Ongoing | Comicwalker Listing)
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This is the latest series by Tachi, the author who gave us Sakura Trick. If you didn’t know before reading this, well… she’s pretty into lingerie, and that’s what this series (and at least one of her recent doujinshi) is all about. Our main characters (who will presumably pair off, it’s Tachi after all) are named Ran and Geraldine, or put another way, “Ran” and “Gerry” or uh, lingerie.

There’s only 7 chapters out and I’ve read 6 of them (7 just went up the day I am writing this so I’ve not read it yet) and it’s… cute? But it’s definitely hampered by reading a single chapter a month, which is simply not a good way to experience manga in my opinion. I should honestly wait for volume releases, and I think I may do so once at least the first volume is out. I think I’ll re-read vol 1 at that point, just to give it an opportunity to flow better, because right now I enjoy it but it’s over as soon as I’ve gotten into it and then I have to wait for another month. Bleh.

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Ongoing, Other

Centaur no Nayami
(Murayama Kei | Tokuma Shoten / Ryu Comics | 17JP/15EN volumes | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing [English])
There’s been two additional volumes since I commented last year, and I’ll be damned if I could possibly find a way of summing them up besides, “as fascinating as it is incomprehensible, also, still gay“. And this is the one series I’m still reading translated, so it’s not like I just misread anything! Perhaps it’d be instructive to point out that I think Hime and her friends thwarted an intergalactic alien invasion and saved the universe, and this is treated with roughly as much importance as anything else, be it a terrorist takeover of Hime’s school or just Shino learning to become a good onee-chan to her younger friends. And thus from “mmm, nice booty” to “hang the racist!“, these and so much more are all equally indispensable parts of the befuddling yet charming Centaur no Nayami experience.

Flying Witch
(Ishizuka Chihiro | Kodansha / Bessatsu Shounen Magazine | 7 volumes | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
Only one volume came out in 2017, just one day short of a full year since the last one. It was another really fun one, albeit one that didn’t progress any of the main character arcs. Neither Chinatsu nor Makoto made any significant progress in their witchy training. But the outstanding sense of humor that defines this series was still very much present. There was one sequence in particular that I could not help but imagine the anime taking a shot at, because as funny as it was in print it would have been utterly gut-busting in the hands of the anime’s brilliant staff.

Gakkou Gurashi
(Kaihou Norimitsu, Chiba Sadoru | Houbunsha / Manga Time Kirara Forward | 11 volumes | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
I read the first four volumes of this a couple years ago, and then this year I started over again and have gotten back to the same point. This also happens to be where the anime ends, so I have yet to get into post-anime material. But there is a significant difference right at the end of this volume: in the anime, the school is overrun and they escape in a car, heading onward to the unknown. In the manga, volume four ends with a military helicopter pilot seeing the letters they sent off in balloons early in the series.

I’ll reserve additional comments until next year when I get into new material. All I really have to say is that this is every bit as good as I remember it, with its strange mix of the mundane events you expect from slice of life, punctuated by absolutely harrowing moments when something goes wrong. And Megu-nee remains my favorite teacher in all of anime or manga. Everything involving her final moments (…both times) is heartbreaking, but the love she had for her students is a powerful force that’s shaped so much of what they do and who they are, even after her death(s).

Harukana Receive
(Nyoijizai | Houbunsha / Manga Time Kirara Forward | 6 volumes | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
Volumes 5 and 6 came out this year. The anime covered through five, which means the latest one finally gave me an opportunity to get into new material. And I was both surprised and quite happy to see that Narumi and Ayasa received the lion’s share of attention this time around. The volume starts with Akari meeting Fukami Natsuki, the younger sister of Fukami Mika, a famous beach volleyball player. The latter expresses an interest in helping Haruka and Kanata go pro, much to the annoyance of Natsuki, who feels like they’re going to take her sister away. She’s clearly being set up as their next major opponent before the inevitable HaruKana/NaruAya showdown. I’m also interested in Mika’s suggestion about going pro – I’d love to think that maybe this series will continue on long enough for that to happen, and won’t just end when Ayasa and Narumi are defeated. I’d also love for Natsuki and Akari to get together because hell yes Akari deserves a nice girl to pair off with like everyone else. “Pairs” are, after all, this series’ core theme. (There’s also this cute bit where Haruka and Claire playfully squeeze Akari for details on who this cute new girl she’s gotten so friendly with is. Make it happen!)

Haruka and Kanata also meet Narumi and Ayasa again. The former fill in for a practice match that Mika is supposed to be reporting on. Narumi and Ayasa win easily, but it’s still hard-fought. Other than seeing Narumi acknowledge Kanata as her rival and the two sharing friendly words, the most interesting development to come out of this is Ayasa becoming increasingly fixated on Haruka. You can already see her stepping in to fill the Claire role, now that team Eclair is out of the running for the championship.

After that, it’s all Ayasa and Narumi backstory. This entire sequence is fantastic and it’s such a shame we won’t see it animated. Ayasa is rapidly losing her passion for indoor volleyball when she meets Narumi – and it’s love at first sight. We see them become friends, and then an inseparable pair, and then a dominating force in beach volleyball. These chapters sell their relationship so hard and if you aren’t on board with Narumi/Ayasa by the end of this, I don’t know what to tell you. Overall it’s a wonderfully constructed volume, and I’m just dying for the next one.

Hinamatsuri
(Ootake Masao | Kadokawa / Harta | 15 volumes | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
I’m currently somewhere in the middle of volume 6, which still leaves me within the material the anime covered. That said, there have been quite a lot of individual chapters that didn’t make it into the adaptation, which explains how it managed to cover six or more volumes in one cour. I don’t think the anime missed anything critical, but there were some damn funny bits that I bet the anime would have done a phenomenal job with. In particular I’m thinking of one chapter where Nitta convinces Hina to act like a normal girl – but it results in her becoming so docile and emotionally dulled that Nitta completely regrets his actions. The ending to this chapter is just a perfect storm of absurdity. A hostage situation at Hina’s school that ends with the hostage-taker eating lunch with Hina’s classmates also would have been rad to see.

The fact that so many of the skipped chapters involve Hina does sort of explain why I read a bunch of comments saying the anime didn’t really sell Hina as well as it sold Hitomi and Anzu. But I’m not sure any of these chapters actually change how I view Hina. As hilarious as these bits are, she’s still pretty much the same character we saw in the anime, and I was always going to like Hitomi and especially Anzu more.

In any event, this one is slow for me to read given the somewhat harder dialogue but I will definitely keep at it, particularly as I’m dying to know how the post-timeskip material works out. I’ve got a very long road ahead of me though, given I’m on volume 6 of 15.

 
 

The one bit of sad news this year is that Ato de Shimai Masu. appears to have been cancelled. It had gotten into such a good spot, and then poof, it just stopped. I don’t know if Ichijinsha pulled the plug of if the author had to stop for their own reasons, but I’ll miss it. I also failed to get any more Shinmai Shimai no Futari Gohan read this year, but I’ll fix that eventually…

I knocked some really important titles off my reading backlog this year, but I also have some longer ongoing series with a lot of volumes left to get caught up on. Besides those and any new volumes of the titles I’m caught up on, I’ll also try various yuri and Kirara series here and there.

One of my big priorities will of course be Yagate Kimi ni Naru so I can get into the post-anime material. But other than that. I haven’t decided on the next anime I want to continue in manga form. Maybe I’ll try to get further in Gakkou Gurashi and Hinamatsuri before I decide.

2 Responses to “2018 Manga Year in Review”

  1. Avatar steenspring says:

    Good work on the write up, found it really insightful.

    I found the ガールズシップ thing pretty funny considering the author’s history with kancolle doujinshi.

  2. Avatar Usagi says:

    A heads up, Slow Start released a special extra chapter online that isn’t part of any volume here:
    http://www.dokidokivisual.com/slst-amsb/campaign01/slst/HTML5/pc.html#/page/1
    So save the link because you won’t find it anywhere if you decide to read the released manga. It kinda takes place after volume 5, but there is no harm in reading it if you already watched the anime.

    And Anne Happy ended recently, it’s a good read and it’s not a 4koma, I recommend to read that next.

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