12
Sep
[ Last post: 2020 Manga Q1-Q2 in Review! ]

[ Standard disclaimer: Spoilers! Lots of spoilers! ]

Only “Completed” is ranked, all others alphabetical.

As mentioned last time, I’ve switched up my approach and comment in two scenarios: series I completed since the last quarterly update, and series I’ve started since.

I’ve also started following a set structure for first impressions to help streamline writing by asking three questions: what is it, what works, and what my hopes are for it going forward. I think I’ll also use those comments as my jumping-off point when I write up completed series, unless it’s a manga I both started and finished in the same quarter (like Tsurezure Biyori this time) and don’t have “first impressions” available for.

Complete
Series that I’ve finished since last update:
» Tsurezure Biyori

Ongoing, New
Series I started since last update (not ranked):
» Dekisokonai no Himegimi-tachi (4 vol)
» Futsuu no Joshikousei ga [Locodol] Yattemita (4 vol)
» Goukaku no Tame no! Yasashii Sankaku Kankei Nyuumon (1 vol)
» Koukaku no Pandora -Ghost Urn- (10 vol)
» Koushin Koinu ni Koibumi wo (2 vol)

Ongoing, Other
Series that I started prior to the last update (not ranked), with the number of volumes read in the last quarter listed in blue, if applicable:
» Centaur no Nayami (18 vol read, 20 published)
» Citrus+ (2 vol) +1
» Flying Witch (9 vol)
» Harukana Receive (9 vol)
» Hayama-sensei to Terano-sensei wa Tsukiatteiru (3 vol) +1
» Kase-san (6 vol)
» Kirara Fantasia (1 vol)
» Konohana Kitan (12 vol)
» Machikado Mazoku (5 vol)
» Nettaigyo wa Yuki ni Kogareru (7 vol)
» Otome no Teikoku (15 vol) +4
» Pocha Climb (1 vol)
» Sasayaku You ni Koi wo Utau (3 vol) +1
» Shimeji Simulation (1 vol)
» Slow Loop (3 vol) +1
» Slow Start (7 vol)
» Tamayomi (8 vol) +5
» Watashi no Yuri wa Oshigoto desu! (6 vol)

Complete


Tsurezure Biyori / 徒然日和
(Hamuro Kei | Ichijinsha / Comic Yuri Hime | 3 volumes | Complete | Bookwalker Listing)
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What is it about?
Koharu enters high school and reunites with Mafuyu, a half-forgotten childhood friend who recently moved back from Tokyo to the rural town they call home. Mafuyu is absorbed into Koharu’s friend group which includes Minori and Nanaya, who live together in a small apartment. That’s pretty much it! This is about as pure a slice of life series as it gets.

What’s good about it?
The beanbag chair.

In the middle of Nanaya and Minori’s living room is a big beanbag chair. It’s the natural gathering place in the apartment, and we often see the girls lazing around it while conversing, or just ending up in a big pile on top of it. It’s an amorphous blob of softness that pulls the girls in close and encourages togetherness and intimacy. It is slice of life in furniture form, like a kotatsu in how it serves as the central gathering point of the room, but even more intimate because you’re drawn together towards the center rather than separated by a table in the middle. In order for multiple people to use it at the same time, you’ve got to get up close and personal.

Tsurezure also embraces this physicality through the special delight it takes in hugs. There’s reassuring back hugs, there’s sticky sweaty hugs, there’s playful wet beach hugs, there’s drunken adult hugs, there’s mischievous hugs sneaking in a bit of skinship with a new friend, and giddy hugs between friends who are quite happy in their respective relationships but still enjoy the rare moment alone together.

Hugging and skinship is great, but getting to experience the characters’ lives at their most unremarkably ordinary is special as well, and there’s no better example that Nanaya and Minori’s domestic life. We see them wake up, clean the apartment, run chores, and eat dinner. I truly love these scenes; they remind me a lot of the scenes between Narumi and Momiji in their apartment in in New Game S2. They’re particularly rare in manga about high schoolers, with the exception of series like Hidamari Sketch. And on that note, Minori is particularly well suited to these moments on account being for all intents and purposes a reincarnation of Hiro. She’s the responsible onee-san type who does the chores, cooks the food, cleans up, and keeps her less domestically competent partner going. She’s even artistically inclined as well! The biggest difference is that she can eat as much as she wants without gaining weight… (nobody tell Hiro!). Even though this is all “slice of life”, there’s a tangible difference between “four friends hanging out at school” and “two people living together and deciding who takes out the trash today” and I love when we get to see as many different sides of their lives as possible.

This intimacy extends to the adult cast as well: Nanaya’s cousin Shouko and her two friends, who happen to be teachers at the younger girls’ high school. They hang out at Shouko’s place and get drunk and complain about life and vow to live together forever. They’re a vision of what our main cast might one day become, best friends whose bond won’t be broken by time or distance. There’s also this great scene where both worlds collide and they all gather together for a meal. The dense, chaotic energy of too many people climbing over each other in too small of a kitchen is accentuated by richly detailed environmental art and paneling that crowds all seven of them into the frame. Simply delightful.

Everything in Tsurezure Biyori radiates this warmth. It’s a world you want to exist inside of forever, not only for three volumes.

What were my overall thoughts?
The most poignant of Tsurezure’s storylines hints at how much higher it could have soared, had it not ended so soon. As much as I love laid-back slice of life stories, the best of them are the ones that parlay the low-stakes connection we form with the characters into a deeper understanding of how they got to be the people they are today. Their background doesn’t always have to be tragic. It can simply be an exploration of their vulnerabilities and fears, or seeing how they handle adversity and stress. But it was indeed tragedy in the case of Minori, who lost her mother at a young age.

There’s a heartbreaking revelation that Minori used to wander off after school every day to cry by herself, as a way of releasing built-up emotional stress. The fact that such a young girl had to step up and fill in her mother’s role contextualizes everything we’ve learned about Minori to this point in a way that instantly advances her beyond “the onee-san archetype” into a fully realized character. The revelation is all the more devastating on account of being shown from Nanaya’s perspective. We’re placed in the mind of a small girl (likely no more than eight at the time?) who has just been confronted by a situation she’s never been taught how to handle. Minori is her best friend, and yet all Nanaya could do was run away. She’s scared, ashamed, overwhelmed, and feeling powerless to help the person she cares about the most. But she somehow overcomes that fear. Not by confronting Minori’s loss directly, but by vowing to never, ever let Minori cry alone again. Nanaya knows she can never replace Minori’s mother, but she can be her best friend. And as they grow up together and that bond evolves, something much more.

I have no doubt that if Tsurezure had kept going, moments like this would have defined its future volumes. Instead, I’m left trying to weigh the pure mastery exhibited across these three volumes against the future potential that will never be realized. The chapters where Koharu realizes she’s in love with Mafuyu and they first kiss are a perfect encapsulation of this conflict. It’s thrown at us without proper build-up, but the execution of Koharu’s dream sequence is nonetheless stunning, and the confession and kiss still cathartic.

Tsurezure wasn’t cancelled as far as I’ve read; rather the mangaka decided to stop working on it for unknown reasons. Burnout and/or health are the default guesses in situations like this, though we can’t know for sure. Whatever the reason, what I can say is that it was a beautifully constructed story. Hamuro Kei’s next work, whenever that happens, is going to receive the highest level of priority from me.

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Ongoing, New


Dekisokonai no Himegimi-tachi / できそこないの姫君たち
(Ajiichi | Takeshobo / Manga Life Storia Dash | 4 volumes | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
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What is it about?
It’s the classic popular girl x shy girl romance. Nanaki is the princess of the school, a popular gal who everyone else either admires, fears, or crushes on. Kanade is a shy otaku knows her place in the social pecking order and steers clear of the popular kids. If you’ve read Morinaga Milk’s modern classic Girl Friends, then you have a pretty good grasp of the basics. As a direct result of Nanaki and Kanade becoming friends, they end up ostracized from their respective cliques. Nanaki lashes out at one of her friends for insulting Kanade, and Kanade’s friends avoid her because they’re scared of Nanaki. It’s not until later that Nanaki’s friend Izumi starts tagging along, around the time Kanade’s childhood friend Iroha transfers into the school. At this point the core dynamic has coalesced: Iroha starts to crush on Izumi, who has long been in love with Nanaki, who is in denial about her blossoming feelings for Kanade, who is growing really attached to Nanaki but has up until this point been reluctant to seriously interrogate her own feelings.

What’s good about it?
Execution, execution, execution. The simplest and most predictable story beats can soar in a talented-enough writer’s hands, and Ajiichi is clearly talented. I always maintain that even if you’ve “seen it before”, you haven’t seen it with this combination of characters, in this story world, in this writer’s hands. Dekihime only grows more confident over time, executing its major story beats in sharp ways that push the characters’ relationships forward while revealing more of what makes each of these girls tick.

That last bit is critical because the roles Nanaki, Kanade, and Izumi play on the surface only tell half the story. Nanaki’s perfect princess exterior is supported on a fragile scaffolding of self-confidence that’s only kept intact by her constant hard work to maintain her looks and stay up on the current fashions. When her makeover for Kanade yields results far beyond what she expected, Nanaki has to contend with two sets of feelings: her attraction to Kanade, and her fear of being displaced as the school’s #1 princess. Kanade has had her self-confidence shattered by another “princess” in the past, but rather than resent the princesses of the world, she’s instead come to deify them. She yearns to be like them, and believes that their radiant smiles are treasures to be preserved. The time she spends with Nanaki rubs off on Kanade who becomes increasingly fashionable and beautiful, but she can’t shake the imposter syndrome. Izumi’s cool, collected, princely personality hides a deep fear of abandonment by Nanaki, the girl she loves. Iroha… is also here. Okay look, Iroha rules but what you see is what you get. And that’s fine! She’s the extroverted breed of otaku, confident about liking the things she likes and a source of strength and validation for Kanade. In a series where everyone else is harboring secret fears, a totally straightforward character can be quite valuable.

The shifting friendship group dynamics also warrant a mention. That Nanaki and Miki parted on bad terms and have stayed that way for four volumes is interesting, particularly since Miki is further isolated when Izumi jumps ship from the Miki faction to join Nanaki. Miki and Maho are quietly fascinating, and while we’ve only seen them in short bursts since the start, there’s a lot of potential there. So too with Kanade’s old otaku friends, who may have acted shitty in cutting her off, but are presented in a very understandable light. Their fear of the popular kids is probably relatable to most readers, and when one of them tearfully apologizes to Kanade later in the story, Nanaki gets to overhear both how the people she’s previously looked down upon view her, and also just how much trust and affection Kanade feels for her. Dekihime believably depicts the awkward ways in which friend groups form, break up, and overlap in the chaotic world of high school.

What do I hope to see going forward?
I hoped and suspected from early on that Dekihime would settle into a dual-couple structure a la Watayuri, and as of volume four that’s where we’re headed. Iroha has been pretty open about Izumi being “her type” since they first met, but it was always playful, self-deprecating sort of admiration, like the manga club girls’ reactions to Kaoru in Otome no Teikoku. But now that Izumi is on the rebound from a failed confession to Nanaki, Iroha’s casual playfulness has been replaced by the sharp twinge that grips her heart any time she looks at Izumi. If Kanade and Nanaki’s relationship is a low, slow rumble of thunder heralding a yet unseen storm, then Iroha’s feelings for Izumi are a rainbow-colored bolt of gay lightning.

So at the moment I’m most excited about Izumi and Iroha’s relationship. With Izumi freed from the burden of her hidden feelings for Nanaki and Iroha laser focused on getting closer to Izumi, I expect there to be a refreshing simplicity to their relationship (even if it takes a few more volumes to formalize). The fact that Iroha didn’t have a crush on Kanade like I expected her to neutralizes what would have been the last major barrier. Nanaki and Kanade is the traditional extrovert gal x introvert otaku, while Izumi and Iroha is the rather more unusual introvert gal x extrovert otaku. There’s something exhilarating about that!

But just like with Watayuri, my excitement for the second couple isn’t any indictment of the original couple. Izumi/Iroha is appealing for its contrast to Nanaki/Kanade, the complexity and emotional weight of the latter is something the former former can’t match (and frankly, probably isn’t trying to). Still, I have to imagine that Nanaki/Kanade are going to be a bit stuck until Izumi/Iroha are able to make more progress and then double back to pull their friends up alongside them. I don’t think Dekihime is going to supplant Watayuri as the queen of dual-couple storytelling, but it only keeps improving and I’m delighted to see another story doing a similar thing.

(And lastly, I really hope this runs for a good while yet. Don’t let this be a case where I comment “first” impressions after 4 volumes then it ends at 5 or 6!)

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Futsuu no Joshikousei ga [Locodol] Yattemita / 普通の女子校生が【ろこどる】やってみた。
(Kosugi Koutarou | Ichijinsha / Manga 4-Koma Palette | 4 volumes (8 published) | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
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After rewatching the anime a few weeks ago in a bid to liven up the truly dead Summer anime season, I decided to start reading the manga. The anime hits the same milestones in roughly the same order as the first two volumes of the manga, but paces itself very differently early on, taking the time to flesh out encounters that were quite brief in the manga. The two start to diverge around the Locodol Summit (Locodol Festa in the anime), and by the end of volume four we’ve been in post-anime material for quite a while now. Reading the manga made it clear what a great adaptation the anime is, though that’s not to say the manga is bad at all; the anime just made excellent choices in both the adaptation and expansion of the source material, as a good adaptation should.

What is it about?
Nagarekawa (modeled on real-life Nagareyama in Chiba prefecture, population ~160,000 when the manga began) is a mid-sized city with little in the way of famous local specialties or tourist attractions. Usami Nanako’s uncle is head of the tourism promotion board, tasked with raising the profile of the town, drawing in tourists, and supporting local businesses on a shoestring budget and a skeleton crew. After recruiting(/tricking) his niece into performing at a local event to commemorate the opening of a new indoor pool facility, Nanako meets the beautiful Kohinata Yukari and agrees to take on the part-time civil servant role of a “locodol” (local idol). They play second fiddle in popularity to the local yuruchara mascot “Uogokoro-kun”, operated initially by Mikoze Yui, and later with backup from Nazukari Mirai.

Lodocol is the story of these four girls doing their best on a low hourly wage to both promote Nagarekawa to outsiders and foster community within its borders. Their goal isn’t to “become top idol” and sell millions of CDs, it’s to engage in a never-ending stream of D-list celebrity interactions as they gradually win over the hearts of the locals and grow together as friends and coworkers. If you’re a fan of something like Sakura Quest you might already understand the appeal, even though the two shows differ in many other respects.

What’s good about it?
My general avoidance of the idol genre is well established at this point, but back in 2014 when the anime aired I wasn’t all the way there yet, and in any case Locodol’s emphasis on the girls’ role as part-time public servants does wonders to differentiate it. Locodol revels in the kind of small-time quasi-celebrity that sees the girls spending far more time doing meet-and-greets at local businesses than putting on flashy musical performances. There’s frequent jokes about how the mascot is significantly more popular than the Nagarekawa Girls themselves, and their audiences tend to be a mix of young children with their parents, senior citizens, and their friends from school. There is a heartwarming intimacy to the slapdash operation the tourism bureau is running, and it’s impossible not to be charmed by it.

Uogokoro-kun and the Nagarekawa Girls play stationmaster for a day, oversee ribbon cutting ceremonies, record videos for the town promotion bureau, sing for crowds of a few dozen at a department store, and perform an eclectic range of business promotions from exterminating wasps to washing windows. While the anime ends with a nationally televised performance for the Locodol Festa, it’s juxtaposed against the higher priority the girls give to a local event back home that’s scheduled for the same day. And even that performance is a much smaller affair in the manga. While the girls’ popularity is steadily growing, even four volumes in they feel entirely grounded. They aren’t headed to Budoukan any time soon, and that’s how I like it, frankly.

But I’m not reading Locodol for a crash course in the civil administration of a small Japanese city, I’m in it to watch charming characters interact. The mentorship relationship between Yui and Mirai is a delight. Because Locodol is a workplace story moreso than a school story, Yui doesn’t suddenly vanish from the narrative upon graduating like she typically would in a club activities manga. This means we get to see an extended transitional period as Mirai grows more confident and takes on more responsibility to make up for Yui’s reduced availability. Nanako is starting to really come into her own as well, even if she doesn’t realize it. One day she’s suddenly faced with doing a performance with neither Yukari nor Saori nor Yui there to back her up, and still manages to take control of the situation and make the event a success. It’s satisfying seeing her improve at the technical aspects of her job while also embracing her role as the face of the community.

Then there’s Yukari, the beautiful ojou whose family owns an entire floor of a high-rise condo and seems like she can do anything and everything perfectly. But she’s also the same girl who turns into a blushing nervous love-struck maiden when Nananko comes by for a sleepover. As much as I like all the other aspects of this series, naturally I’m most excited about this. Locodol is… really gay. Maybe not “serialized in Comic Yuri Hime” gay, but it’s a solid notch above what you’d expect from most slice of life. There’s no good-faith arguments to be made that Yukari isn’t unambiguously in love. She’s repeatedly talked about wanting to be Yukari’s wife. She read up on yuri manga so she’d be “ready” in case Nanako “had certain tastes” the first time Nanako came over to her place. She’s pretty goshdarned thirsty for Nanako at all times. As for Nanako, well… multiple times she’s commented on how beautiful Yukari is, she goes along with the “we’re wives!” gags, and she clearly has really strong feelings for her, but she also plays the tsukkomi to Yukari’s more over-the-top advances. I don’t know if Locodol will ever break the yuri ceiling and make them an official couple with a confession, but their relationship is truly delightful at the moment.

What do I hope to see going forward?
I honestly hope there’s a lot more of the same in terms of their locodol activities. If they get a little more popular that’s fine, but I’m not here to see them conquer Japan. I have some concerns that perhaps this will be where the manga ends up in the long run, because the temptation to ramp up the girls’ national profile must be pretty strong from a story progression standpoint. But any expansion of their profile outside of Nagarekawa must be balanced in favor of their commitments back home with the local community. More loco, less dol.

The idol activities need not be an end in and of themselves. We see Yui (begin to, as of vol 4) transition away from her role as Uogokoro-kun and enter a seiyuu training program after she graduates from high school. Noriko, the lead locodol of semi-popular unit Glass Cute also leaves the group at the end of her contract and attends the same seiyuu program as Yui. Mirai has expressed a desire to create children’s media when shes older, and hire Yui to voice act in it. Yukari has planned for years to study abroad after graduating, although one assumes her feelings for Nanako will complicate that. So there’s plenty of examples of what life after locodol-ing can be.

If I had written these comments before reading vol 4, one of my biggest wishes would be for a greater integration of the secondary cast of characters and interactions involving different permutations of the main cast, but that was exactly what the fourth volume was all about. In the afterword Kosugi says they were inspired to do this in part by the anime, which is another reason to praise the anime’s fantastic adaptation. Given that fact, I’ll just trust in the story and be excited to see where it all goes. Whether it’s Noda on the student council with Sumire, or Yui’s little sister Kana joining Misato’s tennis(?) club, or Mirai befriending Satsuki, Locodol’s world expanded considerably in this volume.

And of course, I want more than anything else to see Yukari and Nanako’s relationship continue to blossom. Yukari’s got a big choice ahead of her regarding study abroad, and I’m not sure how that’s going to play out. Nanako is a year behind her so they can’t exactly go together. But I also can’t imagine the Nagarekawa Girls being split up without some kind of time skip to move quickly past the year or two Yukari would be overseas. Her study abroad plans came up a few times in the fourth volume and as her third year of high school progresses I imagine it’s going to become one of the central conflicts of the story. I’m excited because it’ll put an intense spotlight on Yukari and Nanako’s relationship, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.

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Goukaku no Tame no! Yasashii Sankaku Kankei Nyuumon / 合格のための!やさしい三角関係入門
(Canno | Kadokawa / Dengeki Daiou | 1 volume | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
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What is it about?
Third year middle schooler Mayuki dreams of getting into the same high school that her beloved senpai Akira just entered. The only issue is that admission to the school is competitive and Mayuki is dumber than a sack of particularly dumb rocks. On a visit to the campus she gets lost and encounters two girls going through a messy breakup. One of those girls (Rin) appears at her house later that day, turning out to be the very tutor Mayuki’s mother hired to help her pass the entrance exam. Rin’s attracted to Mayuki but wants to restrain herself, as a result of being burned in the past. Said restraint is in immediate jeopardy however, when Mayuki requests a more intimate style of tutoring as practice for when she reunites with Akira. Meanwhile, Rin and Akira are already close friends, with Akira having a major crush on Rin.

What’s good about it?
If you’re keeping score, by the end of volume one that means Mayuki ♥→ Akira, Akira ♥→ Rin, and Rin ♥→ Mayuki. Usually you’d expect yet another love triangle where someone ends up left out, or has to go pair up with a fourth character. But this is Canno, the author of Ano ko ni Kiss to Shirayuri wo, and most importantly the masterpiece sixth volume and its polyamorous relationship between Amane, Ryou, and Nina. Yasakan isn’t shy about what it’s setting out to do. The first interior color page slams down its thesis statement with the force of a meteorite impact: “Who exactly decided that you’re only allowed to love one person?”. This almost perfectly echoes Amane’s words to Itsuki in Anokiss, and it’s hard not to see Yasakan’s existence as Canno looking at everything she accomplished with Anokiss and deciding that this was the concept she most wanted to explore in further detail.

By the end of the first volume we know the most about Rin. This is really Rin’s volume in a lot of ways, as it should be. With polyamory being the core theme and Rin being the one who has the most experience with it, she’s the character we’re apt to sympathize with most. The depiction of her past experiences is heartbreaking, as we watch all excitement about love fade from her eyes as the years go by and she internalizes the social stigma against loving multiple people. Any time she’s asked who she likes and mentions more than one person, she’s dismissed as being silly or confused, with a “No, I’m asking who you like the most“. And this rejection isn’t just theoretical; her attempt to love her two closest friends in middle school ended up with both of them leaving her behind. And so, she’s determined not to love again. Unlike Amane in Anokiss, Rin isn’t self-confident enough to steamroll over all this rejection and plow ahead anyway, and as much as I adore Amane this makes Rin a potentially more complex character.

Mayuki pulling a Yuru Yuri-style Chinatsu “practice session” on Rin only really works because Mayuki’s such an airhead. I could buy that she wasn’t thinking things through when she requested the first kiss, and only upon realizing how much she enjoyed it did she become self-conscious. Not self-conscious to stop “practicing”, mind you! This escalates throughout the volume from one tutoring session to the next, until it all climaxes in one of the most electrifyingly intense moments of physical intimacy I’ve ever encountered. Rin finds Mayuki wallowing in despair over a failed attempt to tell Akira her feelings, and every emotional defense Rin had erected over the years just crumbles to dust. She consoles Mayuki, and in turn opens up about her own vulnerabilities, before she and Mayuki bare themselves to each other – although you can’t help but feel like Rin is risking significantly more here. It’s a stunning first volume cliffhanger.

Interestingly, the fact that these girls’ feelings are directed towards wlw relationships is not the main point of contention. It may come up later, but thus far we’ve seen girls talk about their attraction to other girls with minimal gender-related pushback. Yasakan instead stays focused on the acceptance, or lack thereof, of poly relationships. I’m curious to see how this works out, but as a way to keep the story focused, it feels like a defensible enough decision so far. And in any case it’s hardly the only yuri relationship to treat wlw relationships as relatively normalized; not every yuri manga needs to wrestle with “b-b-but we’re both girls!?”, even if it’s wholly understandable and realistic that the majority of them do.

What do I hope to see going forward?
Shit, just keep doing what you’re doing, Canno. I think we already know the contours of how this ends, it’s just a matter of how wet and wild the ride is going to get along the way. I trust that Canno knows what I want even better than I do. Right now it’s Akira who needs the most fleshing out, but I have no doubt that’ll happen in the next volume. My guess is that something will happen between her and Mayuki first, and through Mayuki we’ll see Rin and Akira fall in love as well.

I cannot wait. I was excited as hell for this volume ever since I read Anokiss 6, and it surpassed all expectations, immediately catapulting itself up among my favorite ongoing manga.

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Koukaku no Pandora -Ghost Urn- / 紅殻のパンドラ-GHOST URN‐
(Rikdou Koushi | Kadokawa / Niconico Ace | 10 volumes (18 published) | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
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Ten volumes is a heck of a lot for a first impressions post! But the anime (see here) very faithfully covers a whopping seven of those in full. It only starts to diverge during the confrontation with Ian and Fear, which is much longer in the manga. After a shortened Fear fight, the anime anime ends at a point halfway through vol 8. Given there’s still 8 volumes to go before I’m current, and the manga is still being published, consider this my first impressions of the post-anime material.

What is it about?
The story begins when Nanakorobi Nene arrives on Centale Island, a technologically advanced city state in the eastern Pacific, culturally influenced by both Japan and America in fairly equal proprotion. She meets the scientist(/terrorist/freedom fighter/depends on who you ask) Uzal Delilah and her “pet” full-body cyborg(/robot? it’s still not clear) Clarion. Nene falls in love with Clarion almost immediately, and when they’re separated from Uzal after some explosive hijinks involving an underground superweapon called BUER, Nene and Clarion end up living with Nene’s super-genius and super-eccentric aunt, Korobase Takumi.

Nene learns that she is an “adepter”, a human who has unnaturally strong control over her fully prosthetic body. Pandora takes place (loosely) in the same universe as Ghost in the Shell and was initially conceived by Shirou Masamune himself, although the writing and art is Rikudou Koushi’s (art later taken over by Hitotose Rin as of vol 9). But it occurs earlier in the timeline, back when fully prosthetic bodies are much less common than they are in GitS. This adepter power allows her to harness the “Pandora Device” within Clarion and unlock super-Wizard-class hacking abilities.

From here there’s a sequence of increasingly ridiculous incidents involving multiple factions vying for control of BUER, countered by Clarion and Nene, with Uzal hatching schemes of her own from the shadows as she pretends to be dead. Eventually the identity of the organization opposing her makes itself known: Poseidon, who are seeking to enact their “Apollo Seed Project”, which they believe will allow them to act as humanity’s guides and masters.

What’s good about it?
Pandora depicts tense geopolitical rivalries, buried superweapons, rival mad scientists, an invasion of used-car-saleman-like vending machines, and shadowy organization with a self-aggrandizing messiah complex. But as the narration conveniently reminds us multiple times, “This story has nothing to do with any of that. This is a story about girl meets girl.” That’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because Pandora spends copious amounts of time on its increasingly convoluted plot. But its insistence that the heart of the story is Nene and Clarion’s relationship still rings true.

Ian Kurtz was the villain of the anime and first 8 volumes of the manga, but Pandora eventually pulls back the curtain to reveal that Kurtz was merely one small, disposable cog in the vast machine that is Poseidon. Most of these reveals feel like they happen on a whole different plane of existence from Nene. Clarion is more directly in-the-know, but she shields Nene from much of what they’re up against. It’s not that Nene doesn’t tangle with Poseidon operatives all the time, it’s just that she doesn’t perceive the bigger picture. And frankly, I don’t think she cares – after all, for her this story is about the time she’s spending with Clarion.

Nene’s blase attitude towards the larger machinations of the labyrinthine sci-fi plot is essential to what works about Pandora. No matter what’s going on around her, Nene will hone in on the humanity inherent in the situation. But humanity does not only mean “humans” like me and (presumably!) you. When I wrote about the anime I focused a lot on Nene’s tendency to see no difference between man and machine (or at least quasi-sentient machines and above). As the ultimate man-machine hybrid herself, the idea that machines are less worthy of our consideration than flesh and blood people just doesn’t sit right with her. I’m happy to say that the post-anime volumes have only made this aspect of her character more explicit and central to her personality.

One way this happens is through the introduction of the mysterious P-2501 (a reference to the original GitS Puppetmaster, Project 2501), an AI that’s watches over Nene and Clarion for some time before revealing itself. Nene defaults to treating it like any other person, something that amuses and delights P-2501 (nicknamed “Nico” by Nene) to no end. Nico renders text much of the subtext of Nene’s character until this point, and comments on how fascinating she is. Nico’s motives are, like so many other characters’, still unclear. But she’s been an excellent addition to the cast, especially in how she’s formalized everything we’ve suspected about Nene.

She also plays a role in the most powerful scene up until this point, the one that concludes the most recent volume I’ve read (10). Nene and Clarion visit a business associate of Takumi’s on her behalf, Keith and Claudia Brooklyn. Keith tells them about their daughter Cyril, kept in stasis as little more than a clump of brain cells in a machine he calls “the Cradle” due to a condition that would render her body incapable of supporting her brain if she were born normally. While in the Cradle’s presence, Nene notices a light and a voice, which Nico confirms is Cyril. Nene makes a reckless gamble that she can extract and decompile the data that makes up “Cyril” before the digital terrarium colapses and takes her cyberbrain down with it. This is Nene embracing what we’d consider the absolute bare minimum of “existence”, just a few cells and some data, and treating it as fully sentient. This is, to this point, the clearest and most extreme articulation of Nene’s worldview. This is also the moment when Clarion once and for all sets aside the logic she’s been programmed to aibde by and embraces Nene’s ability to do things that seem impossible. Through their combined powers, they midwife Cyril into this world, and make a frickin data baby together! Subtle, this is not.

This whole sequence was p-h-e-n-o-m-e-n-a-l. It was Konohana Kitan-level self-contained storytelling, while also being a momentous leap in our understanding of Nene and Clarion, and their understanding of each other.

What do I hope to see going forward?
More like the scene I just described, for sure! But even coming up with a list of things that could happen in Pandora seems like pure folly. This is easily the most bonkers story I’ve read this side of Centaur no Nayami, but it has an excellent grasp on what makes Nene compelling as a character, and Clarion endearing as her partner. All I can really ask is that Koukaku no Pandora never forgets its core maxim: “this is a story of girl meets girl”.

Remember that, and I think we’re going to be alright.

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Koushin Koinu ni Koibumi wo / 行進子犬に恋文を
(Tamasaki Tama | Ichijinsha / Comic Yuri Hime | 2 volumes (4 published) | Ongoing | Bookwalker Listing)
(click to hide)

Note: I could have read one or two more volumes before I published this, but I’m intentionally recording my impressions after just the first two due to it ending in volume 5. First impressions make more sense when they aren’t 80% of the story, after all.

What is it about?
The setting is the Nagoya Rikugun Younen Gakkou (military cadet training academy) in imperial-era Japan, somewhere in the first half of the 20th century. The exact year hasn’t been stated, but based on a comment in the second volume we learn that the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) ended when the high-school aged protagonist would have been a very young child. There’s no sign Japan is actively at war at the moment, so it’s fair to assume WWI is over. All that adds up to around 1920, give or take. WW2 is still a ways off, but Imperial Japan’s militaristic ambitions would be ramping up. Of course unless I missed something, in our world there wasn’t a large, formalized military academy for women in 1920s Japan and heavy participation of women in uniformed infantry combat roles in the Russo-Japanese war so there’s nothing saying that Kokokoi has to follow our history exactly. Nonetheless, this is at least heavily based in a real period in Japanese history, not a completely fabricated AU.

Indou Shinobu enters this academy on the recommendation of her mysterious “aunt”, somehow passes the exam despite appearing to be homeless, malnourished, and living on her own when we first meet her, and is assigned to a squad led by the strict, stoic Kagami Fujino. Something strange happens when the scraggly Shinobu gets a nice hot bath and a haircut: she immediately draws the attention of the girls around her. Not the kind of “bully the new girl” attention you expect from a “commoner joins a prestigious school” premise, but an altogether more “oh damn, I want a piece of that” kind of attention!

What’s good about it?
(Or in this case, more or a “what’s got me most intrigued, even if I don’t know how it’s playing out yet?”)

Talk about a provocative and unique setting for a yuri romance manga! While I’m always going to maintain healthy suspicion about the motives of any author who romanticizes (to any degree) the military in an era of hyper-nationalism, I also think it’s important to understand that you can tell intimate stories about individuals without necessarily condoning the broader politics of the institution or era in which they exist. Readers do have a responsibility to be vigilant about coded messages or beliefs in otherwise benign looking works. But sometimes “I just wanted to write a cute romance about girls in military uniforms in an interesting era rarely seen in the yuri genre” may really be as simple as it sounds. The sympathetic portrayal of Natalya, a solder on the Russian side of the Russo-Japanese war, is worth noting as well. So far, Kokokoi hasn’t done anything that screams fascism at me.

While the girls are certainly given lectures on the importance of loyalty and fidelity and self-sacrifice for the emperor, they’re cadets at a military academy. It’d be pretty shocking if they weren’t receiving this kind of indoctrination. That’s what the military is all about. Tellingly though, Shinobu doesn’t join the academy due to any sense of patriotism. She is brutally honest about her motivation: she’s poor and has no immediate family and she was pointed towards the military as a place to get three square meals a day, a decent bed, and a hot bath. She has no interest in geopolitics, she’s thinking only of survival. Her naivete is not necessarily justification, but it is explanation, and it certainly rings true to me when I consider how, historically at least, the poor and minorities shouldered a disproportionate burden of military service in my own nation’s military.

Another aspect of the cadet academy worth special mention is the way it handles senpai-kouhai relationships, and Shinobu’s special place within the system. Now, an “everyone thinks the protagonist is hot” premise isn’t normally something I’d praise – after all, it’s the basis of every terrible harem – but Kokokoi handles it in a fascinating way. Also a potentially rather fraught one, but sometimes that’s precisely what makes something interesting. At the academy there’s something called the chigo (稚児) system. This is a word I had to research a bit; it literally means “child”, though in a historical sense it was also used to refer to younger boys with whom Buddhist priests maintained sexual relations, so that should give you an idea of what the most problematic possible reading is. However in Kokokoi’s context it refers to a semi-formalized system of intimate entanglements between junior and senior students. Because the first and third year students are close in age the pederasty implications don’t apply, but the strict hierarchy of a military institution nonetheless means there are power imbalances at work. Think of it like Marimite soeurs, but on steroids. Suddenly the Big Lesbian Pheromones that Shinobu apparently gives off take on a sharper, potentially more predatory edge. Her senpai have got their eyes on her, and want to claim her…

Or at least that’s the subtext! I can’t tell yet just how far Kokokoi intends to run with this. We’re told that Shinobu is a hot commodity, we see the blushing glances of her fellow first years, her senpai get teasingly playful during a test of courage, and Ooba warns Kagami that if she doesn’t make a move other girls may swoop in. But 40% of the way through the story only Kagami and Miharu have expressed romantic interest in Shinobu. Ooba got a little, uh, skinshippy on their first meeting, but she’s not seriously pursued her since – she treats her more like a cute puppy. I don’t know whether Kokoi intends to go in some more challenging directions later on, but for now I view the focus on this system as establishing a set of social expectations for Kagami and Shinobu to overcome, as they learn to genuinely love each other while eschewing the performative intimacy of a militarized Class-S framework.

What do I hope to see going forward?
Honestly, I’m not sure! As may be obvious from my comments above, I have many more questions than specific wishes. When exactly does the story take place and what is the geopolitical situation like? Will it shatter their sheltered life in the academy, or will the remaining volumes stay purely focused on Shinobu and Kagami’s relationship? What are the authors feelings about this point in Japanese history, and is that going to manifest overtly in the narrative? What in the world is the deal with Shinobu’s “aunt” (who we learn at the end of volume two is Kagami’s mother)? And if she was being raised by a very wealthy woman, why is Shinobu literally Chiya from Urara Meirochou, a feral wild-child more at home in the mountains than around civilization? Will the upperclassmen’s implied sexual pursuit of Shinobu become a major story beat, or is it just background noise meant to pressure Kagami into making a move?

I think I’m just along for the ride right now! For all I know, this series is almost as likely to end with Shinobu and Kagami deployed in Siberia facing down the threat of violent death as it is to remain a pretty straightforward romance, one that just happens to use the window dressing of a tense period of Japanese inter-war history.

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