Emily Joy reviews Tokyo Love by Rica Takashima

Tokyo Love

Trigger warning for some transphobia

In Tokyo Love, Rica Takashima explores a semi-autobiographical story of recently-out college-age lesbian, and what it was like to be queer in Tokyo in the 1990s before dating apps and online LGBTQ communities became more commonplace. This book is an omnibus of a serial manga she created originally for the lesbian magazine Anise(now defunct), and includes later chapters published after Anise was discontinued.

Tokyo Love follows a young woman named Rica (not to be confused with the author) after she first comes to Tokyo for college and ventures into Shinjuku Ni-choume, Tokyo’s gay district. Rica is adorably naïve and genuine and full of enthusiastic curiosity. She quickly meets an art student named Miho, and through the rest of the manga, Miho is her Ni-choume guide, and eventual girlfriend. Focusing primarily on their relationship, Tokyo Love showcases Japanese lesbian experiences in short episodic doses.

All and all, I found this book to be cute and fun. Some of the best parts of this book are in some of the earliest chapters where readers learn along with Rica about Ni-choume and Japanese lesbian bar culture. Although I live in Japan, I don’t particularly enjoy bars and haven’t gotten up my introvert courage to visit Ni-choume. This manga was fascinating, and I loved enjoying it from the quiet of my own apartment.

Although this is not necessarily a “coming out” story, over the course of the manga, Rica experiences many “firsts” of her lesbian experience, allowing the narrative to explore different topics like bar culture, having sex for the first time, her first girlfriend, and discovering LGBTQ community. Despite all these first experiences, Rica is already sure and established in her sexuality and attraction to women, and there isn’t any of the coming out drama that might otherwise be included.

Chapters are also included which show Rica and Miho’s respective childhoods and first feelings of attraction towards other girls, which is a nice addition.

My only major criticism of Tokyo Love is the depiction of a trans woman in one of the chapters. Rica meets a woman at a college mixer, and they agree to go on a date. However, when Rica suggests they end the night at a women-only bar, her date declines, fearing that she hasn’t “perfected her female body” enough to go inside. After realizing that her date is assigned male at birth, Rica responds in a thought bubble, “You’re a man!” It’s played off as very lighthearted and comical, and Rica’s date doesn’t seem upset in the least, but it was a rather jarring experience for me as the reader.  While not stated outright, this seems to end the potential for another date, and the character is never mentioned again.  It was a very disappointing scene, in an otherwise good manga. And although there isn’t anything offensive in the rest of the book, this chapter might have been enough for me to think poorly of it as a whole.

Despite being left with a sour taste in my mouth from that chapter, the rest of the manga was mostly enjoyable. The art is cute, and although the story became a bit dull for me at a certain point, I still enjoyed it for what it was, and read it until the end. If you are curious about the experience of being a lesbian in Japan in the 90s, you might consider this one.

If you’d like to read Tokyo Love, the publisher has made it free online, and you can read it and download it as a PDF: http://www.yuricon.com/yuriconalc/RTKO/files/inc/1218031951.pdf You can also purchase a Kindle edition on Amazon, but I don’t recommend it, because the text is sometimes too small or blurry to read, but is clear on the PDF!

Susan reviews éclair

Éclair: A Girls’ Love Anthology That Resonates in Your Heart

éclair is ostensibly an anthology of lesbian romance manga, collecting stories whose protagonists range from primary school children learning about trust to young adults trying to juggle relationships and work. It’s got a generally high quality of art. However. There are perhaps sixteen stories included in this volume, and there’s maybe two that I would count as a functional relationship, which is a bad ratio for something advertised as romance.

Here’s a quick overview of the stories:

1) “Happiness in the Shape of a Scar” by Nio Nakatera follows a girl who tries to befriend a solitary pianist, and grows increasingly frustrated and jealous of her focus on the piano – to the point of actively fantasising about her hands being broken because of the rejection. The relationship that grows out of it is kinda sweet, but the fact that it’s rooted so thoroughly in the protagonist’s guilt and the love interest’s pain means that I’m not sold on it.

2) “Tears in the Clean Room” by Shiori Nishio is about a school girl finding out that her best friend has a girlfriend, and becoming overwhelmingly jealous. And her jealousy manifests as homophobia, the belief that her love is “purer,” and relief that her feelings were “neatly cut off without ever becoming corrupted.” Yeah, no, this wasn’t for me; I don’t know about you, but I don’t expect an explicitly queer anthology to drop a story where the protagonist is actively homophobic the entire way through. [Caution warning: homophobia]

3) “Human Emotion” by Shuninta Amano finds the protagonist – a woman is so good at everything that people have described her as inhuman and bullied her – starting to work with a woman who struggles with almost everything and decides to keep her. Like, explicitly comparing her to a pet and setting her up to fail for the protagonist’s enjoyment levels of keeping her. This was one of the relationships that I was suspicious of because of how unhealthy it was, and the way the protagonist’s mental state actually seems to be deteriorating over the course of the story. [Caution warning: bullying]

4) “Intro” by Chihiro Harumi follows a girl who immediately gets a crush on her oblivious new tutor, who happens to not notice anything that isn’t history, and decides to make her notice. If you like teacher/student romances, this is probably fine? I liked the way that the protagonist started to wonder more about the history her tutor loves as the story goes on, but on the whole it wasn’t for me. [Caution warning: teacher/student relationship]

5) “The Unemployed Woman and the High School Girl” by Kanno has an unemployed woman who gets money by being a sugar baby tying to fend off the advances of a teenage girl from a wealthy family who has a crush on her. I maybe like this one for the fact that both of the characters have someone they can be entirely honest around, and the woman is clearly trying to be a decent person despite all of her worst instincts, but I think that I like it solely because I’m not reading it as a romance, so take that under advisement. [Caution warning: adult/teen relationship]

6) “The Hairdresser” by Uta Isuki is about a girl who loves styling hair as she finally gets a chance to work on the model of her dreams: one of her classmates with long, silky hair. I think this one is quite sweet and silly, and does read as a sweet beginning to a relationship! The art is funny, and I enjoy Chika’s enthusiasm and her poses, even if I disagree with her hairstyle choices. It’s not bad!

7) “Alice in the Miniature Garden” by Sakuya Amano follows a maid responsible for tutoring an unwanted illegitimate child, and I have mixed feelings about it. When it’s being sweet about two unwanted girls choosing each other over and over again, I like it! But to get to those bits, you have to get through them both being needlessly cruel to each other, and I’m not sure I can be bothered with it.

8) “Master for 1/365” by Mekimeki has one of the few functional relationships in this book! The protagonist’s best friend volunteers to be her servant for a day and do anything she asks to make up for forgetting her birthday. It’s actually pretty cute and simple, which I appreciated after some of the other stories in this collection.

9) “Two Years and Eleven Months” by Kabocha is a melancholy story about childhood friends making a last ditch attempt to stay together after they start growing apart. It’s a quiet story with a bittersweet ending and both girls disappointing each other throughout, but it’s pretty well-told and I enjoyed how clear it was that the two of them still cared for each other even though it was hard.

10) “Game Over” by Kagekichi Tadano is about two school girls searching for a bed at the end of the world, and it manages to be equal parts atmospheric and silly. I like the way the reveal was handled, and I enjoyed how much the two girls seemed to like each other. [Caution warning: jokes about suicide]

11) “My Cute Bitch” by Izumi Kawanami was possibly one of the most frustrating stories in éclair. The protagonist moves in with a friend who likes casual sex with men, who then decides that maybe she’d like to date the protagonist! But as the love interest has no female friends, the protagonist decides that they can’t sleep together because a platonic friendship would mean a lot more. I… Have no idea why that’s in a girl’s love anthology when it seems extremely counter to that premise, but go off I guess! [Caution warning: cheating, slut-shaming]

12) “A Tale of Weeds” by Kazuno Yuikawa is the story about primary school kids I mentioned; a girl who adores her best friend starts to realise that maybe her best friend isn’t actually the nicest person when the friend starts bullying a new girl in class. It’s cute! It has characters learning about trust and friendship! I don’t necessarily understand why it’s in a romance anthology, but it is cute. [Caution warning: bullying]

13) “The Two of Us and Apples” by Taki Kitao is another sweet and goofy story; the protagonist has a crush on her best friend, who keeps asking for help learning to cook for men! The art is cute and squishy, giving everything a comedic tone that I think went well with the story and helped to show the protagonist’s frustration and fondness clearly! I think this might have been one of my favourite stories in the collection.

14) “Belle the Rabbit and the Wolf” by Hachi Itou is the only fantasy story in éclair, which makes it feel out of place. It’s a cute story about a bunny girl who owns a café helping a wolf-girl track down a delicious food that she can’t remember, and the art is lovely? The story is fine, there’s not a lot of drama? But tonally it’s very different from the other stories so I’m not sure how well it fits in.

15) “Your Jinx” by Fumiko Takada is so ridiculous that I’m honestly tempted to skip over it. A schoolgirl approaches her crush (who she has never even spoken to), to announce that she’s pregnant with the crush’s baby. I would like to stress the fact that they never even spoke before this! It’s ridiculous, the punchline is kinda gross, and if you do get a copy of éclair I’d suggest just skipping over this.

16) “My Idol” by Auri Hirao is another frustrating one. Two idols use on-stage fan service as an excuse for physical contact, which obviously ends in tears. I didn’t like this one, mainly because I didn’t see the point of it, especially not in an anthology that’s supposed to be about love?

I think the problem might be in the way that I interpreted the marketing. It’s advertised as a girl’s love anthology, which I took to mean it would be an anthology of romances, with the attendant happy endings and relationships that go with it. What I got was an anthology that didn’t seem to have a unifying theme or tone beyond having two female leads, some of which have a romance/romantic feelings and several of which don’t. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because sometimes you do need stories about unhealthy disfunctional relationships, and sometimes you do need stories about friendships between queer women! But in a manga advertised as a girl’s love anthology, I expected the stories to be similar in tone or structure or level of romance, anything, and they’re not, so I came away feeling quite disappointed.

Marthese reviews Kase-san and Morning Glories by Hiromi Takashima

Kase-San and Morning Glories Vol 1

Don’t you just love when you discover new queer lit (especially mangas which are so rare!) thanks to a public library?

Kase-san and Morning Glories manga is about Yamada (despite the name) who develops a crush on Kase-san, a tomboyish track athlete from next class. Yamada is at times reminded that Kase is also a girl and is always berating herself, but she does eventually get used to it. The two develop a friendship over gardening, walking together and training, and Yamada starts to believe in herself because Kase does.

It has manga-style sexiness (panty shots and boob shots) but there is nothing explicit and in fact, I found this in the Junior section at the library! It’s actually really cute at times. The two are obviously crushing on each other and, hurray, the ending was great! The story doesn’t drag out too long, though I do love slow-burn. It’s very fluffy: I mean, Yamada has a tendency to tug at Kase’s jacket to get her attention! And the support they give each other is so healthy and cute! A highly recommended series for those that like girls loving girls (or women loving women). It actually has a plot although a generic slice of life/high school theme.

The series in general has 5 books and there is a spin-off called Kase-san and Yamada which so far has 1 book. There’s translations in English and German available and there is even an OVA available to watch! 

Mallory Lass reviews Fearless Defenders by Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Will Sliney and Stephanie Hans.

Fearless Defenders Vols 1 and 2

As you may know from some of my earlier reviews, I am new-ish to comics and therefore discovering old gems all the time. Fearless Defenders (2013) is a 12 issue run that has been captured into two trade paperback volumes. Some of the individual issue covers are nothing short of amazing, including a romance novel themed one and a Sailor Moon themed one. This review contains minor spoilers about some characters sexualities, but hopefully without giving too much context, the stories will still feel fresh when you read them.

What I enjoyed most about this series is that it is fun and campy and unapologetically female fronted. The costumes are often over the top, the locales exotic (from the cosmos to the home of the Amazons), the character combinations bordering on weird, but somehow it all works perfectly. The Fearless Defenders is a group helmed by Valkyrie, and made up of a misfit group of fearsome ladies, with varying levels or superpowers and super abilities including the likes of Clea, Dani Moonstar, Hippolyta, and She-Hulk. Their objective is to grow their team and protect the universe from evil forces and the various brewing plots to bring down humanity.

There are two explicitly queer female characters in this run, and even though her sexuality is not really discussed in these pages, Valkyrie is canon bisexual and certainly can be read that way in Fearless Defenders. No coming out stories here, when romantic relationships between women come up, they just happen without any commentary, and that is a big plus for me. There is so much good banter, especially instigated by Misty Knight, a bionic private eye with a gorgeous afro, who happens to be one of my favorite characters from this series. She is best friends with lesbian Archeologist Annabelle Riggs and also ocasionally her contract employee.

Dr. Annabelle Riggs is a human (midgaurdian) about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. She is what I affectionately call “adorkable:” basically, if Daria and Lara Croft merged, you would get Annabelle. She has the cutest freckles and Rachel Maddow level cool glasses. Plus she is intelligent and kindhearted. There is no shortage of Misty giving her friend a hard time about her love life, and how much of a disaster gay she is. Annabelle is one of the throughlines of this series, and I think it is one made stronger by having a human to balance out all the superheroes.

The other queer character is baby gay Ren Kimura, and dancer who unexpectedly develops superpowers. Ren shows up in the back half of the series (or tpb Vol 2) and is new to this whole superhero thing. She is also a young adult trying to figure out her life while living with overbearing and conservative parents, so, highly relatable. In my opinion, her story doesn’t get enough air time, but it is still a nice ‘coming into adulthood’ journey. The ferocity with which she fights, all instinct, no training, is inspiring.

Another really cool thing about this series is that most of the villains are female, including the ring leader Caroline Le Fay. Many of the superheroes she recruits or hires to do her bidding are powerful ladies who chose the dark side, and I thought that was a really great contrast to our band of Defenders. I don’t see a lot of female v. female fights in comics, so if you are into that, this is the story for you.

If you want a diverse female centric run of comics with an enjoyable superhero storyline, this is definitely a series for you.

Danika reviews Heathen, Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

I feel like Heathen is a book that lots of people are looking for, but they don’t know it’s an option. It’s about a lesbian viking taking on the patriarchy. Norse mythology with a queer lead! That’s what made me pick this up in the first place, but I mistakenly thought this would be incidentally queer: that the main character liked women, but it wouldn’t come up much. Instead, the basis of her arc is that she was banished from her community–and meant to be killed–for kissing a girl. Instead of feeling shame, she feels outrage at a system that punishes her for this. She decides to free Brynhild, a Valkyrie who is imprisoned in fire by Odin.

That’s only the beginning, though. This is a quest to take down the patriarchy, and along the way Aydis and her allies defend other outcasts. She also runs into some talking wolves and a talking horse as well as Freyja, goddess of love. Oh, and of course, she picks a fight with the most powerful enemy you can find in Norse mythology: Odin.

I really like the art, which has muted colours and a scratchy quality that makes it more dynamic. I’m not going to be able to explain it well, so just look at the page below for an idea of the style. My only qualm, and it’s a small one, is that Aydis and many other female characters are wearing very little clothing, especially considering that this scene takes place in winter. It is own voices lesbian representation, though, so I’m not going to get too hung up on clothing choices. This is a fun, feminist take on Norse mythology, and I’m looking forward to picking up volume 2!

Page from Heathen

Susan reviews A City Inside by Tillie Walden

A City Inside by Tillie Walden

Tillie Walden’s A City Inside is a short surreal book about a young woman growing into herself again and again.

As you’d expect from me reviewing Tillie Walden’s work, the art is beautiful; the protagonist’s various homes are especially well done, and the way that the art manages to tinge even the protagonist’s happier moments with melancholy is pleasingly visual. As with i love this part, the more surreal parts of the narrative are left for the reader to interpret as they will; the narrative is framed as someone telling the protagonist her own past and future, so the reader can take its accuracy and melancholy and hope as they will. And I did find it hopeful – even when the narrative takes the protagonist into an isolated city of herself, there is an underlying message of hope – it gifts her the hope of finding a place and a version of herself that she can live in and with, a future that she hasn’t seen yet and might not be able to, and that has value all of its own.

I found A City Inside to be a beautiful exploration of the different ways you can try for what you want (or what you think you should want), and the irreparable ways that these things sometimes contradict each other. I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Moonstruck, Vol. 1: Magic to Brew

Moonstruck Vol 1

I adored this book when I started it. The pastel colours, the adorable art style, the world packed full of magical people of all varieties (living plants! ghosts! centaurs!), and the coffee shop setting. Then you get a f/f romance between two fat poc werewolves (Selena is Black and Julie is Latina)! It also has a nonbinary centaur character who uses they/them pronouns. I was gearing up for a five star rating.

Unfortunately, I ended up giving this one three stars, because I am conflicted about it. Although the plot pulled me through the story and I loved the aesthetics, the adorable relationship quickly devolves into something… icky. Selena is sometimes controlling and even insulting. Julie reacts with tears. They fight, multiple times, including physically (as werewolves). I fully admit that I prefer my romance fluffy and basically conflict-free, so I am bringing my own baggage into this, especially because I can feel so much empathy for Julie, who is a raw nerve of vulnerability and sensitivity.

I still want to continue with the series, because everything else was 5 stars for me, but because I was expected fluff, the downward spiral of the relationship really soured it for me. The book does address their dynamics and has some accountability, but it still didn’t seem to match the happy tone of the rest of the book. I’m interested to see if the next volume course corrects in that, or if I’ll have to accept that this one isn’t for me.

Danika reviews Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess Vols. 1-3

Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess Vol 1

I finally got around to reading Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess, a comic series that’s been on my TBR ever since I heard of its existence. I’m kicking myself for not starting it sooner, because it’s just as awesome I was hoping. Raven is the daughter of a pirate captain, and she was supposed to inherit the title. Unfortunately, her brothers stole that from her. Now, she’s determined to put together her own crew, get a ship, and regain what’s rightfully hers.

This is a diverse, all-women pirate crew bent on revenge. There’s an f/f romance between Raven and another member of the crew, who was a childhood friend until Raven betrayed her. (Friends to Lovers to Enemies to Lovers?) I can’t help but compare this to Lumberjanes for a) the all-women group of adventurers and b) hijinks, but Raven the Pirate Princess seems to be aimed more at teens than middle grade. There is more violence than something like Lumberjanes, and the relationships are more complex.

My favourite thing about the three volumes I’ve read so far is that I feel like I’m really getting to know the entire crew, not just the five on the covers. They all have distinct personalities, and they have their own close friendships and rivals within the group. In addition to the racial diversity and multiple queer characters, there’s also a Deaf character who uses sign language. Although there is a lot of action, and the plot progresses quickly, I felt like there was still attention paid to establish each character.

In addition to adventure and heartbreak, there’s also a lot of satire, especially making feminist points. I also loved the references that I caught (Doctor Who, Avatar, a Kelly Sue DeConnick appearance). I preferred the art in the first volume (that’s what’s the cover), though, and I did take a while to get used to the art in the second volume. In the third volume, there’s a subplot that I don’t feel great about. [spoilers/content warning about race, highlight to read] A black woman (elf) is held captive and treated like an animal. One of the people imprisoning her (he is wearing a turban and has light skin) befriends her, and begins to argue for her to have more privileges (like a room to be locked in instead of a cage), but is still imprisoning her. They fall in love. He breaks her out. I feel uncomfortable with the prisoner-falls-in-love-with-her-captor story line no matter what the context, but having the black woman character treated as an animal and kept as a cage just adds to the grossness, and I don’t believe there are any black creators on the team. [end] There are a lot of diverse characters, which helps, but I did personally cringe at that point.

I do want to continue with the story, though, and I’m excited to see where it heads next!

Danika reviews Aquicorn Cove by Katie O’Neill

Aquicorn Cove by Katie O'Neill

I can’t get enough of Katie O’Neill’s artwork and stories. The illustrations are beautiful, captivating, and comforting. The pastel tones and softness of shapes matches the soothing tone of her narratives. In her author bio, she says that she writes “gentle fantasy stories,” and I think that’s the perfect description. This one definitely has a similar feel to The Tea Dragon Society: a sweet middle grade comic with a queer subplot.

There is a fantasy element to Aquicorn Cove, but fundamentally it’s about Lana and her father visiting to the seaside town she grew up in, before her mother passed away. They are staying with Lana’s aunt, helping to clean up after a storm damaged a lot of the town. Lana loves seeing her aunt and being back home, but her father is impatient to go back to the city–uncomfortable with the memories that haunt him here.

This is also a love letter to the ocean. Lana clearly loves being back by the water, and she nurtures a baby aquicorn she finds stranded in a tidal pool. The environmentalist message includes information at the back of the book about coral reefs and how we can take care of them.

The romance is between Lana’s aunt and an underwater woman creature (not a mermaid… she kind of reminds me of a Pokemon, but in a good way). In flashbacks, we see how they got closer, and then how they drifted apart. Their town depends on fishing, and it becomes a point of tension between them.

If you liked her other works, you’ll like this one, too. I’d especially recommend this to middle grade nature lovers, but anyone looking for a gentle fantasy story (especially with queer content) should appreciate this one.

Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 is another set of autobiographical essays about Nagata Kabi’s life and depression. Where Volume 1 followed her attempts at independence and romantic intimacy while unpicking her relationship with her family, whereas volume 2 finds Nagata Kabi enjoying friendship and emotional intimacy, while her mental health takes a nosedive.

Just like with the first volume, My Solo Exchange Diary can be a rough read. Nagata Kabi is frank about her mental health and the setbacks she suffered – being equally unable to cope with living alone and living with her family, drinking, and voluntary hospitalisation – and that is often harrowing! Sometimes funny, but definitely hard sometimes. Her cartoony style still doesn’t soften any of the blows, and sometimes make it worse, but her art is clean and striking, so it works! (And just on a purely over-analysing level: I love that the cover is finally her reaching out to herself and talking, because I feel like that drawing alone represents so much growth in her attitude to herself and her own pain.)

I think what really struck me for the first time as I read this is that because of the format – a collected edition of visual essays that were originally serialised monthly – it’s actually really tense to read, because you don’t have the same reassurance that the creator must have been fine because they finished the book as you would in a more standard autobiography. It accounts for the significant shifts in tone and subject between the chapters, and the way that she is much more enthusiastic and loving about her family than she was in the first volume, even as she talks about the pain they have caused and still cause her. It makes sense, because My Solo Exchange Diary is very much about the ways that Nagata Kabi’s family hurt her, but still rallied around when she needed them, but it was a little surprising to read.

The depiction of her struggle with independence and her stay in hospital felt very relatable to me, especially in her reactions to being stuck in the hospital without being able to articulate her fear and despair at the idea of having to stay there for months on end. It doesn’t feel advisory or demonstrative, it’s not a “here is what staying in hospital for mental health reasons is like,” it’s just what it was like for her, and the ways in which it helped her and scared her.

Unsurprisingly, My Solo Exchange Diary is still hard and harrowing to read, but it feels more hopeful than the previous volume. Nagata Kabi specifically talks about her support network that cares for her, and there is an epilogue where she recognises that packaging her life in neat little chunks for an audience is maybe not the best choice for her right now, which I’m honestly in favour of because I’d rather she focus on her recovery. Seeing her asking how her future self was doing at the end of some of the chapters broke my heart a little, but gave me hope that she was going to be okay. … Especially because she FINALLY got the hug that she’s been waiting for, and I nearly cried for her.

[Caution warning: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation, self-harm, suicide attempt]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.