What I’ve Been Reading: May 2020

I’ve been looking for a way to motivate myself to get through my endless pile of unreads, and for a way to put someting up on the website during what could charitably be called an incredibly busy time in my life, and so here we are with a monthly series of mini-reviews, taking a small handful of books I’ve read each month and telling you what I think about them. Larger reviews shall be returning shortly, reserved for when I have time to write something longer.

art by Kazutomo Ichitomo

Shed That Skin, Ryugasaki-san vol.1
Story & Art: Kazutomo Ichitomo
Translation: Andrew Hodgson
Editing: Maneesh Maganti
Typesetting: Kazushi Mizutani
Retouch and Proofreading: Christian Knoll
Originally published by OVERLAP, Inc., 2019
Published by Kaiten Books, 2020
Copy puchased from Bookwalker Global

What is it?: Yugami is a creepy dude who is into his classmate (and lizardgirl) Ryugasaki, or to be more specific he’s INCREDIBLY INTO the shed skin and other byproducts of his semi-reptillian classmate. Unbelievably, romance and cuteness ensues.

What I think: As the second title for new publisher Kaiten Books, Ryugasaki-san had a lot to prove, both for the sort of identity the publisher is trying to build for itself, but also for the standard of quality they’re aiming for going forward. I could not be more delighted to report that what the team have managed to bring us here with their sophomore effort is nothing short of fantastic, easily on par quality-wise with what much larger or long-lived publishers have been doing elsewhere. Lettering and translation are naturally going to be the two areas that stand out from a reader’s perspective, and the work by Mizutani and Hodgson respectively is more than up to the task, giving us a book that flows naturally without any jarring choices or holdovers made in the name of being overly literal. The translation in particular needs a lot of praise for how well it handles the more herpetological information in the volume, and uh… well, approaching the topic of ‘hot-gluing’ without have to (oh god) gloss over anything in the name of decency.

But what of the book itself? A rom-com series with this specific an idea could be a hard sell, but there’s something in Ryugasaki’s cuteness that makes it easier to deal with Yugami’s specific fetish, and mmmmmaybe his constant boundary-crossing as well. Consent can be complicated with these sorts of gags, but being either game for some of it or in love enough to overlook Yugami doing things like… and I can’t believe I’m saying this… taking Yugami’s skin peelings and making a simulacrum of her, or stealing one of her eggs… well, if Ryugasaki loves him after all of that, then a small part of the reader has to, as well.

The rare dramatic beat fits organically into the story, whether its a case of dysecdysis or a full-blown transformation into a complete lizard form, and I think takes the story from something that with worse handling could be quite throwaway, and turns it into a surprise hit of the year for me.

Also there’s a translation credit on the back cover, which is the sort of touch that’s both easy to appreciate and something that should be the norm for all publishers.

Shed That Skin, Ryugasaki-san is for fans of: incredibly specific fetish hentai, Froppy from My Hero Academia, Monster Musume(? Never read it myself, but monster girls are like lizards, right?)

art by Kagiji Kumanomata cover design by Alice Lewis

Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle vol.11
Story & Art: Kagiji Kumanomata
Translation: Tetsuichiro Miyaki
Adaptation: Annette Roman
Touch-up art & Lettering: James Gaubatz
Cover & Interior Design: Alice Lewis
Editor: Annette Roman
Originally published by Shogakukan, 2019
Published by Viz Media, 2020
Copy purchased from Amazon’s Kindle Store

What is it?: The latest english volume of the soon-to-be-animated Shonen Sunday gag manga, following the misadventures of Princess Syalis and the myriad number of demons who keep her hostage. Th… they ARE keeping her hostage, yes? Wait, where is she going? WHERE IS SHE SLEEPING?!

What I think: Eleven volumes in, and only some mere three behind the Japanese release, and what can be said about Sleepy Princess? Chapters-wise this is almost three years into what should be a very limited concept, of the Demon King and his horde trying to keep Princess Syalis from mischief while they have her incarcerated, and her inevitably getting into trouble in the name of sleep, and one has to wonder what Kumanomata-sensei has in the bag to keep things fresh.

As it turns out, the answer is kind of just doing the same stuff all over again, at least occasionally. For example, Valentine’s day returns in full force, turned on its head by having the demons do their return gifts first, prompting some outsized attempt at chocolate-giving by Syalis.This continuity, taking the story as told before and using it as solid fuel for a new version, is a sign of confidence in the comedic stylings of the work, and is ripe for doing again and again as long as there’s comedy to be found, reminding me more of long-running legends like Sazae-san or Kochikame than most modern gag manga, which is refreshing.

There’s still new subjects to be covered in this volume, and they’re just as enjoyable as the revisited topics. A misunderstanding of Syalis’ admiration for Sunrise, an olympian who joins the hero’s quest to rescue Syalis, drives the demons to absolute madness, building a deadly rollercoaster that quickly goes awry. Porcupine demon teaches Syalis about proper trash separation. The cook who totally isn’t Amuro from Detective Conan/Case Closed gets paranoid about Syalis. They’re straightforward plots made hilarious by the sheer escalation and pace of the chapters, that whilst hard to digest in one go, are fantastic as 1-2 chapter comedy breathers between anything else you’re reading.

The adaptation job by Viz Media and Annette Roman continues to be very impressive, taking quite a dense comedy and keeping it digestible across a language barrier that can do real harm to a lot of gag series. It can be easy to forget how crucial adaptation is when handling manga, but never more so than in gag manga, and to not acknowledge it after this many volumes would be nothing short of madness.

Sleepy Princess is for fans of: Keiichi Arawi’s gag series,  Dr. Slump, Delicious in Dungeon

art by Rensuke Oshikiri cover design by Phil Balsman

Hi-Score Girl vol.1
Story & Art: Rensuke Oshikiri
Translation: Alexander Keller-Nelson
Lettering: Bianca Pistillo
Cover Design: Phil Balsman
Editor: Tania Biswas
Originally published by Square Enix, 2016
Published by Square Enix, 2020
Physical copy purchased

What is it?: Slacker kid Haruo spends his days plugging time into arcade games (and their home console ports), confident in his own skills, until the day he encounters his classmate and mute mystery Oono, who is so far above him in skill that it upends his life. The two continue to gravitate to each other as the arcade scene grows and grows. A history of gaming’s greatest era through the lens of a slice-of-life drama.

What I think: On the note of new publishers (kinda, sorta), this is the second series released under the fresh publishing initiative by Square Enix, who seem to be taking this opportunity to bring over more unusual series than previous SE titles brought out under other publishers, so think less Fullmetal Alchemist, 666 Satan, or Today’s Cerberus, and more A Man & His Cat, The Apothecary Diaries, and this very series, (although they do have some reliable choices with a new Perfect Edition of Soul Eater) and I couldn’t be happier. More publishers of varying sizes feels far healthier than relying on a couple of publishers considered too big to fail, and clearly it’s the push needed to give us series like Hi-Score Girl, which I think has been high up many fans’ licensing requests for at least half a decade. Sure, the anime was probably the main motivator, but when other gems like Gurazeni and Magical Circle Guru Guru can’t seem to get picked up off of the strength of theirs, you have to consider what other factors lead us here.

But that’s all to stray away from what I think about the actual comic itself and reader, I adore this comic. What Oshikiri-sensei is able to do with the young lives of his characters, their struggles, their bonds, the cartoonish violence between them, through what is essentially a timeline of video gaming. Street Fighter II is a focal point, partially for its iconic status as the king of the arcade boom, but one also has to wonder if its many, MANY versions over several years is relevant. Time passes, the world changes, Haruo and Oono grow, but Street Fighter II is still there, albeit running at turbo speed or with new characters. But I digress. Oshikiri shows us this evolving relationship between Haruo, who’s kind of an antisocial creep, and Oono, a quiet yet violent girl who doesn’t talk, and manages to do so by having them play arcade games, whether as opponents, as in their meet-cute, co-operatively, as in a fantastic sequence of the two playing Final Fight, or even in a home port, as in a surprisingly sweet chapter of Oono going to see a sick Haruo, and playing his Turbografx/PC Engine. It’s a way of bonding without words, a way of understanding each other, and speaks to the beauty of gaming as an interactive medium.

Oshikiri’s art is able to do some intense work as well, whether that’s by depicting the senseless and improbably violence visited upon Haruo with increasing regularity (think truck-kun, but in the form of a fancy car), or the almost imperceptible variances in Oono’s face in the quiet moments. Oono in particular is a testament to the quality of the work, a character limited in communication but also intensely understandable to the reader through the art, something I really appreciate.

If I had one critique, one minor complaint about this book? It’d be the cover. I love how it pops, all bright yellow and bold, but the second you open the page you’re greeted by the most beautiful cover art you could imagine, and some editions of the book in Japanese even use it as their cover! Oh, what beauty could have been!

Hi-Score Girl is for fans of: Arcade games…. Incredibly good comics? This feels like something unto itself, so this is weirdly hard.

art by Masakazu Ooi

Hime Koukan ~The princess of otaku circles wants to exchange boyfriends~ vol.4
Story & Art: Masakazu Ooi
Serialised in Yoru Sunday/Sunday Webry
Published by Shogakukan, 2020
Copy purchased from Bookwalker Japan

What is it?: An otaku circle consisting of two couples goes in an unexpected direction as all sorts of complicated horniness causes them to share partners. Uneasiness and uncontrollable lust follows, and as of vol.4 there’s no turning back, and new temptations and infidelity approaches.

What I think: How does one even approach Hime Koukan this far in, especially when trying to explain both the appeal and the discomfort to newcomers? On the surface what you have here is an incredibly horny comic created for a service aiming for immorality (it’s quite literally the mission statement of Sunday Webry’s timed-access ‘Yoru Sunday’ material), with all the unbelievably varied and physically-improbable character designs you’d expect from Masakazu Ooi, a creator who is simultaneously a modern master of the form with an incredibly broad variety of work and a base, horny individual who really, REALLY, REAAAAALLY likes big breasts on curvy women. No, like…. humongous breasts, on the curviest women. Curvier than whatever you’re thinking. No, like their back would ache beyond reason. Yeah, that big. And below that surface? Everything that implies, yes, but as with all of Ooi’s works, explorations of something a bit deeper than just getting the reader’s rocks off.

In this case it’s the unease and thrill of doing the immoral, of breaking sexual taboo, by having Susa and co. swapping partners while the others watch, of the places this can lead you when you’ve gone that step beyond. I mention Susa, our glasses-wearing, massively-endowed protagonist, above all because this volume takes him beyond the uneasy brink. What was consensual action in front of each other (save for an earlier bit of voyeurism), has now become something more, as an opportunity presented by Sakuya, his pretty boy friend, and ends up doing it with a photographer friend of Miko’s (Miko being the otaku circle’s princess, for those who need me putting more names to faces). Susa’s girlfriend Amane isn’t there, and the unease is at maximum. This isn’t okay, and that’s the point, and I can assure you from checking later chapters on Yoru Sunday that it does not get less not okay.

But my GOD, does this tale of immorality make for an incredible read with every new volume. Ooi-sensei has done it again.

And hey, Amane is quite a large character, and treated as as sexual and attractive a character as anyone else, and whilst that’s a weird bit of praise outside the context of a horny horny sex comic, it’s actually kind of fantastic to see an author unabashedly celebrating this sort of body type in a comic by one of the biggest comics publishers in the world.

Hime Koukan is for fans of: Adultery Restaurant, Sundome!! Milky Way, netorare hentai?

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