19 Mar, 2010

On the Shojo Beat: Cactus’s Secret and More!

By: Michelle Smith and Melinda Beasi

This month we welcome a new series, revisit a newish one, and bid farewell to a long-running favorite. Michelle gets things started with a look at volume one of Cactus’s Secret, and also reviews the seventeenth and final volume of Love*Com. Melinda gives her take on volume two of Natsume’s Book of Friends, which she calls, “one of this year’s best shojo surprises!”


Cactus’s Secret, Vol. 1

By Nana Haruta
VIZ, 192 pp.
Rating: Teen

Miku Yamada has a problem: the boy she likes, Kyohei Fujioka, is oblivious to her feelings. When she attempts to give him chocolates for Valentine’s Day, he cheerfully offers to help her practice confessing her love for someone else. He seems to be more affected by memories of a childhood friend than by her, but occasionally makes comments that cause her to believe she has a chance. How can she make him realize she likes him?

The back cover would have us believe that Miku is an unfortunate victim of Fujioka’s obstinate obtuseness, but readers will soon realize that this is not actually the case. Miku can’t seem to decide whether she truly wants Fujioka to know how she feels, which leads to vehement denials of her feelings and episodes where she treats him quite shabbily. How could Fujioka, who is admittedly rather dim, be expected to correctly interpret these actions?

As one might surmise, it’s very difficult to like Miku, even though her melodramatic behavior is not outside the realm of possibility for a lovelorn teen. Statements like, “I’m going to become an amazing girl so Fujioka will fall for me!” rankle, too, since I tend to prefer heroines with something on their minds other than boys. The end product is a very shallow story, more suitable for young teens than veteran shojo readers, though it does improve near the end of the volume when Miku’s message is finally clear enough for Fujioka to understand. Fujioka’s response is not only perfectly in character, but also age-appropriate, promising more interesting circumstances to come as the characters progress into their second year of high school.

Cactus’s Secret was serialized in Ribon magazine, and boy, does it show. All characters possess the distinctive eyes common to works from that publication, and screen tone is abundant. There’s even an author’s note where Haruta writes about being chastised for using insufficient tone! As a result, the artwork, while reasonably attractive, is essentially indistinguishable from anything else in Ribon. That said, I do think Fujioka’s character design is pretty cute.

On the subject of author’s notes, the flaws of Cactus’s Secret might be excused with Haruta’s revelation that the deadline for chapter four occurred on the same day as her high school graduation. On its own merits, this manga might not be anything special, but when one considers that it was created by a high school student, it starts to look downright impressive.

Volume one of Cactus’s Secret is available now.

–Reviewed by Michelle Smith


Love*Com, Vol. 17

By Aya Nakahara
VIZ, 208 pp.
Rating: Teen

After the main Love*Com story finished, manga-ka Aya Nakahara published a few additional bonus stories, which are collected in the series’ seventeenth and final volume. Three stories depict Ôtani and Risa during their junior high years and one revisits the gang four months after graduation. One of the major flaws of Love*Com in its later volumes was that, in a transparent effort to milk the series for all it was worth, the focus drifted too much from the leads to the uninspiring supporting cast. Here, at least, each story features one or both of the protagonists in the starring role(s).

Despite its hokey setup—practically every semi-significant character from the series coincidentally converges on the same beach on the same day—the post-graduation story is not only the best of the four, but also provides the best Risa/Ôtani scene in quite some time. It deals with Risa’s feelings of being left behind by her undergraduate friends, who are off having new experiences with people she doesn’t know while she contends with the challenges of fashion stylist school, which is not going as well as she had hoped. Somehow, this series works best when Risa is miserable, and when Ôtani steps up to the plate to cheer her up and listen to her troubles, it provides a better and more personal farewell for the series than the full-cast send-off volume sixteen offered.

It’s been a long time since I paused to admire and reread a particularly sweet moment between these two characters, and I can’t help feeling grateful that I was able to experience it one more time before the end. Maybe, just a little, Love*Com has redeemed itself.

Volume seventeen of Love*Com is available now.

–Reviewed by Michelle Smith


Natsume’s Book of Friends, Vol. 2

By Yuki Midorikawa
Viz, 208 pp.
Rating: Teen

In this volume, Natsume is coerced into attending a school-sponsored “haunted challenge,” only to discover that one of his classmates (who suspects his abilities) wants his help to communicate with a yokai. Next, he falls prey to a curse that he can’t break without supernatural assistance. Later, he meets another human with his abilities and also becomes possessed by a yokai with a final, desperate wish.

Though this volume focuses less on Natsume’s quest to return all the names in the “Book of Friends,” that’s actually not a bad thing at all. Each of the chapters in this installment of the series is more touching than the last, which is saying a lot considering that the first chapter begins with Natsume pouring water on a dehydrated yokai collapsed in the middle of the road.

Unlike his grandmother, Reiko, Natsume is slowly developing bonds with his fellow humans, but he’s also forging relationships with yokai that are much more genuine than Reiko ever bothered with. While she ruled over yokai with the power of the Book, Natsume reaches out to them with genuine affection, struggling to understand how the yokai’s wants and priorities might differ from his own. This deceptively simple lesson in learning to value things outside one’s own experience is subtly and effectively presented, with the same gentleness that has characterized the series thus far. The series’ humor is a highlight in this volume as well, providing much-needed contrast to its forthright sentimentality.

Though the series’ structure is still rigidly episodic, Natsume’s character development is satisfying enough to easily keep up the story’s momentum. Natsume’s Book of Friends remains one of this year’s best shojo surprises!

Volume two of Natsume’s Book of Friends will be available on April 6, 2010.

–Reviewed by Melinda Beasi

Review copies provided by the publisher.

6 Responses to "On the Shojo Beat: Cactus’s Secret and More!"

2 | Natsume’s Book of Friends, Vol. 2 | Manga Bookshelf

March 19th, 2010 at 11:04 am

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[...] I point you to PopCultureShock, where I review volume two of Natusme’s Book of Friends for this month’s “On The Shojo Beat” [...]

3 | Natsume’s Book of Friends, Vol. 2

March 30th, 2010 at 3:03 am

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[...] I point you to PopCultureShock, where I review volume two of Natusme’s Book of Friends for this month’s “On The Shojo Beat” [...]

4 | sheenashirley

July 27th, 2010 at 4:18 am

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I really enjoy to read all your Love*Com, Vol. 17.I like your post very much.I thank you for your nice post.

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5 | Short Takes: Cactus’s Secret, My Darling! Miss Bancho, and Stolen Hearts « The Manga Critic

September 3rd, 2010 at 12:11 am

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[...] that rare shojo prince whose personality and personal integrity are key to his appeal. As Michelle Smith notes in her review of Cactus’s Secret, the artwork reflects the house style of Ribon magazine — home of ChocoMimi, St. Dragon Girl, [...]

6 | Short Takes: Cactus’s Secret, My Darling! Miss Bancho, and Stolen Hearts

December 29th, 2010 at 8:18 pm

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[...] that rare shojo prince whose personality and personal integrity are key to his appeal. As Michelle Smith notes in her review of Cactus’s Secret, the artwork reflects the house style of Ribon magazine — home of ChocoMimi, St. Dragon Girl, [...]

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