Kuma Miko / Girl Meets Bear – vols. 1 & 2 – by Yoshimoto Masume

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Comedy is a hard sell for me, but I found myself paging through Kuma Miko at Shoreview the other day. I know next to nothing about Shinto shrine maidens (miko) and I’m endlessly fascinated by other religions, so I thought I might as well take this one home and give it a try.

SPOILERS

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I find it interesting that at some point this got translated to Girl Meets Bearsince even with my limited Japanese I know this says “Bear Shrine Maiden.” Possibly, though it’s not obvious to me by looking at the Mangahere site, that “Girl Meets Bear” is actually the title of the first chapter.

The back cover flap reads: “In the deep mountainous regions of the Touhouku area, the comedic story of the miko of bears, 14-year-old Machi, and her childhood friend, the talking bear, Natsu, takes place as Machi struggles to qualify for city-life with Natsu’s assistance.”

What’s important to note is that, while Machi really, really wants to go to high school in the city, the story actually never gets her there (at least by the ending of volume 2, BakaUpdates seems to think it’s on volume 7 in Japan and still on-going.)

Given the set-up, I initially thought we were going to leave shrine life and the humor would be all about a fish-out-water/country bumpkin lost in the big city (with a bear companion.)  But, no.  The joke is that Natsu tells Machi that she COULD go to the city, but she has to pass a series of tests to prove that she’s prepared… so we end up with jokes about watermelons (a homonym for the JR rail pass, apparently,) that go so far over my head that I’m thinking I should be studying this book myself, before I consider heading to Japan.  I almost wonder if some of the native appeal of this manga is that a lot of people can relate to how baffling life in the big city is.  As an American, unfortunately, the jokes are mostly just baffling.

Even though it’s comedic, you get a sense of life in the deep recesses of rural Japan.  We find out, for instance, that there might be electricity in a mountain village, but not gas.  There’s also another scene where the town councilman finds out that the old people in the town are expecting a ritual, but no one is exactly sure what it’s supposed to be.

Also, it’s just pretty:

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Wikipedia tells me that there was an anime of Kumamiko (as one word) that aired from April to June of 2016.  The only place I can find to watch it is a fan site, KissAnime. However, there also appears to be a controversy around the ending episode.

I’m not sure I’m going to actively pursue this manga, but I would probably pick up the third volume if it showed up at the library.  If for no other reason that I’m fascinated by the in-jokes I won’t get and the details of life we see.

House of Five Leaves by Natsume Ono

Ever since I started working at the library, I’ve been intrigued by this manga series.  I even read the first chapter some time ago, and the idea of it–a hapless ronin samurai who falls in with a kidnapping gang–stuck with me.  Last time I was at work, I saw they had all eight volumes, so I finally decided to pick it up….

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SPOILERS

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House of Five Leaves is written and illustrated by the same mangaka that did Ristorante Paradiso, which I reviewed some time ago.  I had some of the same problems with this manga as I did the first. The art style is really… funky.

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On top of that, Ono-sensei has a tendency to skip a lot of what, in writing, I sometimes refer to as “connective tissue.”  What I mean is that the action will make sudden, un-signalled jumps from a major moment–say a main character’s arrest (!!)–to weeks later, with no real sense of how people reacted to the news of the arrest or even any scenes going to the jail, etc., etc. (i.e. the connective bits).   It’s very disconcerting. You get a kind of emotional whiplash from it… and/or it serves to add an unnecessary distance, as though you, as a reader, just aren’t allowed in close enough to feel the feels with the characters–instead, you’re like a rock skipping over the surface of a lake.

While I really ended up enjoying House of Five Leaves, the writing and art style were things I fought against at every turn.  I mean, I find Ono-sensei’s art… compelling, in its own way, but it’s quirky af.

Same with her writing.

Of course, as I’m sure I’ve said here many times before I have a real weakness for stories involving the criminal underworld of Edo Period Japan (or, really, any time.)  I loved Samurai Champloo (which, tbh, is also quirky af.)  House of Five Leaves has a very similar vibe… and theme, really. It’s about a bunch of lowlifes/samurai who end up making their own kind of family/find a place in the world, together.  Both have a sense of secret pasts and a vague sense of foreboding that has the reader/watcher vaguely , yet constantly anxious for our heroes, worried that the police might catch up with them or fate or whatever is lurking in the darkness.

Samurai Champloo, at least, has it’s odd, light moments.  House of Five Leaves really doesn’t.

I mean, I guess House of Five Leaves has Masanosuke Akitsu, who is relentlessly hopeful and kind.  He’s a charming character who, at the start, really is pretty useless.  I loved watching him grow throughout the volumes.  He started as this big buffoon who basically trips over his own feet to a guy who can stand up to the toughest gang in region… as well as his disdainful younger brother (much harder/scarier!)  I wasn’t sure how fond I was of Masa, as he’s called a lot, but he really grew on me.

The character I adored was Yaichi.  Physically, he reminded me of Gin Ichimaru from Bleach.  Likewise, Yaichi is foxy and dangerous and sexy and strange…. and very, very secretive.  Like Masa, I pretty much fell for Yaichi from the moment he walked on the stage, as it were.

(Ironically, the voice actor for the anime version of Yaichi, who so reminds me of Gin Ichimaru, is played by Kira Izuru’s seiyū.)

Even though, at times, the volumes’ pace is almost leisurely, the conflict is always present in the form of Yaichi.  We–the readers and the gang of the House of Five Leaves–is tense when he’s away, upset when he’s threatened, and in danger when he’s close.  I will admit that the ending actually made me very tense and it might have been a tiny bit dusty in my house when Masa met Yaichi on the bridge.

I would not be surprised to find Masa/Yaichi as a pairing on AO3, but I actually sort of liked them as unrequited and ridiculously loyal friends, mostly because what I liked about their relationship by the end is how much Yaichi resisted admitting he already had a family an how important it was for him to be rescued by someone who loved him for who he was, warts and all.

I love sh*t like that when it works out in the end, you know?

Yeah, so I didn’t go into to a lot of the plot detail because this is totally a series I recommend you read.  I could not, easily, find an on-line, free version of this, however.  There is a twelve episode anime, so perhaps that’s something you could watch, if you’re curious.