MANGA REVIEW: Saving Life (Vol. 1)

They say March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion… so what does “Maid May” do? Since we started this month to celebrate anime and manga maids with a long expose on the hilarious and extraordinarily messed-up He Is My Master, it only seems right that we end it on a very different note with a review of the short and sweet manga Saving Life by Mario Kaneda. This manga deserves a spot on a site like Anime Obscura more than most, because neither the manga (which only received a single volume released stateside) nor its author even have their own Wikipedia page at the date of this review. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out, as I quite enjoyed my time with this one.

We’ve all been there, bro. Just… maybe not to the extent you have.

Saving Life tells the story of Haruhiko Ayanokouji, a teenage boy who was born into a life of fabulous wealth. His family lived in a mansion, had a whole staff of maids and servants, and controlled a huge conglomerate named after them. However, Haruhiko rebels against what he calls his father’s tyranny, which he later specifies involves forcing him to abide by some unnamed “condition,” and he leaves home to make his own way in the world. This means that the rich kid is suddenly living the pauper’s life in a total dump of a house, but to Haruhiko’s credit, he is a capable and hard worker, so he’s gradually making headway in lifting himself out of debt, if not out of poverty.

He’s helped in this effort by his cute and responsible friend Yoriko, who can be a bit of a taskmaster when it comes to scolding him on keeping up with schoolwork. At the same time, she clearly also has a bit of a crush on him. Haruhiko catches a bit of a break when he gets a job at a family restaurant called Danny’s (a transparently clear reference to Denny’s), but his good luck is counterbalanced by the fact that his clumsy blonde senpai, Junko, somehow gets it into her head that his competence is a sign that he’s a spy from a rival restaurant. This beautiful, hyper-competitive, and dumb-as-a-rock girl vows to somehow seal his professional doom.

Finally, at the end of the opening chapter, Haruhiko is shocked upon his arrival home to find his and Yoriko’s childhood friend, Nanako, waiting for him in his house and dressed as a maid. (Aha, aha, you see? There it is!) Although not explained in detail in Volume One, it’s hinted that Nanako was the child of a servant in the Ayanokouji household during her girlhood and has learned to be a professional maid in the years since then. She explains to Haruhiko that his family was worried about him, and so was she, and they gave their blessing on her moving in as his live-in maid despite his rotten financial circumstances. From here, we follow Haruhiko and his girl-friends (not girlfriends, as yet) as our boy tries to live the “saving life” of the title and survive on a budget.

I discovered this manga during a dive in RightStuf’s clearance bin and picked it up for just a few dollars. Trying to dig up more info on this series was and is none too easy. Its back cover advertises that its author (Mario Kaneda) was also responsible for the much more successful Girl’s Bravo, and it was a Tokyopop manga released in 2010. That second fact alone speaks volumes, since that once-massive manga publisher was in the middle of a downward financial spiral that year that would end in its total shutdown and near-dissolution in the early months of 2011. Tons of titles part-way through publication at that time were sucked into the abyss of Tokyopop’s sinking ship at that time, never to be seen again, and I’m sad to say that the planned subsequent volumes of Saving Life suffered the same fate. There is a page for Volume 2 on Amazon with an anticipated release date, but based on the timeline, I’m quite sure it never made it to print. This seems to have been a short series even in its original Japanese run, with one site I found advertising a “complete run” of 3 volumes.

As an incomplete series, is it even possible to recommend Saving Life? Well… it does make it harder to recommend, but as I mentioned in the introduction, I honestly did enjoy this volume. Saving Life has a couple of things going for it that make it a pleasure to read.

The art in this volume is excellent and does a great job of accentuating the comedy, cuteness, or seriousness of the situation, as the scene might require. This is a harem and ecchi comedy, with plenty of “convenient” stumbles, wet T-shirts, and panty flashes, but the flavor of fanservice on display here is much more cute than lewd. Even in some of the more revealing scenes, it’s pulled off respectfully and doesn’t make you think less of the characters involved. The character designs were appealing, and often their facial expressions when they reacted to things were a hilarious highlight. One of the few negatives I’d mention on the artwork is that most of the backgrounds were nondescript and bland compared to the vivid characters interacting inside them.

I also really enjoyed our main cast of characters, all of whom had some really funny personality traits that made for great running gags. The penny-pinching Haruhiko is an absolute skinflint and cheapskate, and his ability to do anything better when he’s getting paid for it was really fun. I thought Yoriko struck a great balance between being super-supportive yet blisteringly independent, and Nanako’s mystical ability to kinda-sorta repair things and her slightly dirty mind beneath a cute exterior were both great. I also thoroughly loved the female friendship on display between Yoriko and Nanako. Harem comedies where the female characters are at each other’s throats in a perpetual cold-war catfight are dime-a-dozen, but the fact that Yoriko and Nanako thoroughly like, trust, and help each other based on their childhood friendship (and in turn, both usually extend that same benefit of a doubt to Haruhiko) was a real breath of fresh air.

The writing is hard to comment on since we only made it a single volume into the series, but it seemed to be setting up a gradual reveal of exactly what Haruhiko’s father did or asked him to do that caused the familial rupture. We also see the beginnings of an anime/manga harem forming, with Yoriko, Nanako, and even Junko all coming to like Haruhiko a little bit, but there are enough differences in their relationships that one can imagine several of these resolving in close friendships rather than a romantic relationship. The style of the writing is episodic and lighthearted – the author obviously wasn’t trying to write a romance for the ages, but a cute and funny comedy with romantic and mystery elements thrown in, and it was shaping up to be a fun little ride I wish had made it a bit farther.

Saving Life Manga

As the concluding entry in “Maid May” of 2021, I do have to mention that the “maid” element in this book is weaker than in many of the other titles I’ve featured this month. The fact that Nanako is a maid isn’t well-explained, and neither she nor any of the other characters make a very big deal out of it. The “maid thing” is present in various ways, though. Nanako dresses like a maid in Haruhiko’s home, she has obviously worked as a maid at some point, we see some maids in his family’s home, and the “Danny’s” restaurant uniforms for female employees have some maid-like touches in their frilliness. Moreover, the defining trait of the anime maid subgenre – a funny story about clumsy but cute girls attempting to take care of a clueless dude – is on full display here. Saving Life won’t rock your world, but you might be able to say it maid your day if you give it a chance.

If you want to get this manga volume as a cart-topper from RightStuf, they still have volumes in stock at the time of this review, and you could certainly do worse in your forays into their clearance section. It can also be picked up on the used market on eBay for a reasonable price as well.

Thank you for sticking with me this month as we took our time in exploring one of Japan’s stranger cross-cultural obsessions, and hopefully you discovered (as I did) a great series or two to enjoy as we head into the hot summer months. Take care, and May the maid uniform be with you!

MANGA REVIEW: Hanaukyo Maid Team (Vol. 1-3)

I often find that my final opinion of an anime solidifies not on the day that I finish it, but about 2-3 weeks afterward. If I find myself glad to be done with it, or if it quickly goes “out of sight, out of mind,” it probably wasn’t my thing. However, if I keep coming back to it by revisiting scenes in my head or rewatching individual episodes, then something about it struck me as special and worthwhile. To my own surprise, Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite ended up in my personal winner’s circle. I reviewed the anime a few weeks ago as part of “Maid May” here on Anime Obscura, and while it certainly had its flaws, something about its characters and general vibe ended up thoroughly charming me. So much so, that I ended up hunting down the long out-of-print manga!

The original Hanaukyo Maid Team manga was a collaboration by a husband-wife team who wrote and drew under the pen name Morishige. It was published in Japan from 2000-2006 and ran 14 volumes long. In North America, the license was picked up by the small manga publisher Studio Ironcat, who unfortunately were only able to publish the first three volumes of the manga before going out of business. (Volume 4 was advertised in the back of Volume 3 but was never actually published.) These three volumes also encompassed the overwhelming majority of the source material the anime drew from, which is both a good and a bad thing. On the negative side, those hoping to follow the story’s progression after the events of the anime won’t have much to look forward to here. On the other hand, it affords an interesting opportunity for comparison between the original manga and its anime adaptation. (SIDE-NOTE: Since this particular manga license is long abandoned and has a snowball’s chance in hell of being picked up for a new North American print run at this point, I don’t think it does any harm to mention that decent fan translations are available for the remaining volumes. You can check those out here, but only the three officially-released volumes will be covered in this review.)

I’ll point you toward my review of Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite for the story summary, as the manga and the anime don’t differ significantly on their main plot points. The main differences you’ll find between the two is the order in which major events happen and certain characters get introduced. Most notably, the lovestruck vice-chief of security, Yashima Sanae, doesn’t appear until the manga’s third volume, whereas she was a main character in the anime from the very first episode. The other most significant change was that the dramatic story arc that concluded the anime, “Blue Silent Bell”, happened a bit earlier in the manga and was more of a reboot point than a grand finale.

Reading the manga after watching the anime, the thing I found most notable about the original Hanaukyo Maid Team manga was that it read like an experiment-in-motion, a series that had to search around for a while to find exactly the right vibe and tone that it wanted to hit. Once it found it, though, it leaned into it hard and immediately became a better comic as a result.

Volume 1 of Hanaukyo Maid Team is the most unrefined of the bunch in terms of both its visuals and story. We’re introduced to Taro, Mariel, Cynthia, Ikuyo, and the “bedwarmer” triplets of Lemon, Marron, and Melon (though never introduced by name in the manga) as our initial cast of main characters. Ryuuka is also introduced early on, though she’s less of a main character throughout these three manga volumes than she was in the anime. Konowe is another major cast member who makes her first appearance in this volume’s latter half. We also meet the freaky-looking guy below, Haruo Sankoda, who is a classmate of Taro’s from school.

These early chapters are 100% comedy and 0% drama, with hijinks from Ikuyo blowing things up providing much of the story and no hint of seriousness in sight. Interestingly, Taro is also of a fairly normal height in this first volume, but shrinks as the series progresses, something Morishige later admits in a note on his character profile. All told, these early chapters are pretty weak, though we do get small hints at higher ambitions for the story in the Konowe chapters and when Cynthia’s alternative personality, Grace, appears at the end of the volume.

Much of Volume 2 is taken up by the “Blue Silent Bell” story arc, and it constitutes a massive turning point in the manga’s tone. Without spoiling anything too major, some shocking revelations about Mariel’s past come to light, and Taro and his team of maids have to rescue her from a hostile force led by Taro’s own grandfather. These chapters are not only serious and action-packed, but become borderline-dark at points. The art and the writing both drastically improve in quality as this story arc progresses. The depictions of Taro’s grandfather shown below tell the story as well as anything, with him looking like a goofy old geezer at the start of Volume 1 and like a sinister mixture of Gendo Ikari (Evangelion) and Zouken Matou (Fate Zero) by the end of Volume 2.

Volume 1 versus Volume 2. Man, one book can really age a guy!

The manga becomes lighthearted again once “Blue Silent Bell” concludes, but it’s now clearly a much better manga with higher aspirations. Morishige seems to have become interested in not only providing good comedy, but in fleshing out their characters more and making us care about them. They treat “Blue Silent Bell” as the manga’s unofficial reboot point and are even willing to retread some familiar ground in order to do a better job with their premise. The end of Volume 2 retells Grace’s origin story with much more pathos and drama, and certain plot points and characters that were incompatible with the story’s new direction are also dropped by the end of this volume. Taro’s daily life at a public school is no longer mentioned, and the creepy-looking and uninteresting Sankoda character disappears from the story. (Good riddance.)

Volume 3 strikes a nice “best of both worlds” middle ground between the silliness of Volume 1 and the dark goings-on of Volume 2, treating Taro and company as complex human beings but putting them in hilarious situations. Much of this volume shines a spotlight on Konowe and helps us get to know and like her better as a character. It also introduces her apprentice, Yashima, who steals the show for much of Volume 3 and features as a key character throughout. This is a plus, as Yashima is an eminently entertaining character in these chapters. There’s also a bit of a throwback to the original story in one respect, in that Ikuyo outdoes herself in the mayhem she causes in the mansion.

After reading the manga, I can safely say the anime Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite is something of a master class in how to do a good adaptation of very uneven source material. Rather than try to retell the early chapters of the manga in a direct play-by-play as it grasped around to find its direction, the anime took the tone and look of the series as established by the end of the manga’s third volume and retold the entire story in that style from the very beginning. This required some pretty heavy cut-and-paste editing of certain story elements. They brought Yashima in early, presented Ryuuka and Taro with their visual designs from later volumes, and reworked “Blue Silent Bell” into a proper dramatic conclusion rather than a jarring reboot point. All told, though, it really paid off. The manga is a lot of fun, but the anime is far and away the better version of this story when it comes to consistent quality.

Something else I realized is that the anime included an unresolved plot point from Volume 3 of the manga (the underground castle and the portrait of a woman who looked like Mariel). However, by putting it before the events of “Blue Silent Bell” rather than after, it could easily mislead viewers (including this one, who fell for it) into thinking that it was just a poorly-explained connection to the Bell arc rather than a wild loose end completely independent of it. All told, I have to give props to both versions for different reasons: to the manga for having the artistic courage to reinvent itself midstream into a better series, and for the anime for having the artistic smarts to improve upon the original manga by incorporating lessons learned along the way.

Back Covers of Volumes 1-3

I can’t complete this review without commenting on the quality of the books themselves and the presentation by Studio Ironcat. Ironcat sometimes had a reputation for questionable releases, and the only other comic I personally owned of theirs prior to this was a single comic of Cutey Honey that was so poorly-translated as to sound borderline-illiterate and with the art printed altogether too dark. I’m happy to report that Hanaukyo Maid Team fares significantly better for the most part, although there were some quality-control issues I’ll get into in a minute. The physical construction of the books themselves is good, albeit a little smaller than most typical manga volumes printed today in both height and thickness. (And none of the three volumes is exactly the same height, something I’m sure will fill OCD manga collectors with unbridled joy.)

Volume 1 had the most problems of the three releases by far in terms of both intentional (but bad) editorial choices and unintended goofs. There were several times when the artwork was too dark, and there were also a number of typos in the text, ranging from the routine (like misspellings) to the truly bizarre (like the image below, where the start of someone’s email got typed over an image and left in the final printed volume).

Ironcat also apparently struggled with image manipulation for anything more complicated than replacing the speech inside speech bubbles, and their solution in the first volume was to put a long glossary of kanji sound effects with reference by page number in the very back of the book. The image manipulation thing is an understandable problem, especially if they had few artists or graphic designers on staff who could make translated sound effects look good or “repair” the damage to the artwork after taking out the Japanese-language text, but the end-of-volume glossary felt like an “amateur hour” solution to the problem. Flipping back and forth that much made for wildly impractical and confusing reading, and most of the time I just didn’t bother.

In later volumes, they came up with a still-strange but far more practical solution to this challenge by placing translations in the white space above or below the manga panels. This allowed you to read the English translation on the same pages where the kanji appeared, and the way they presented them made it easy to connect the translation to the appropriate panel. This made for a much more pleasurable and well-informed reading experience than the earlier “end notes” approach. You can check out the image below for a good example of this strategy at work.

Volume 2 also included considerably fewer typos (zero of the weird variety), and I don’t believe I spotted any typos at all in Volume 3. The third volume also displayed a leaps-and-bounds improvement in the presentation of the art itself, which is a bittersweet victory in light of the manga’s discontinuation immediately afterward. Ironcat had obviously figured some things out and was in a much better position to do this manga justice moving forward, but the vicissitudes of business and the manga market had other plans.

In the end, the North American release of the Hanaukyo Maid Team manga is best thought of as a bonus retelling or “storyboarding” of its more readily-available anime. The anime honestly does a better job than the first three manga volumes of depicting the Hanaukyo Maid Team’s early adventures, but the original comic definitely has its charms. The spots where it differs from the anime make for interesting reading, and it includes several manga-exclusive story arcs that are hilarious and well-worth experiencing on their own merits. (“Taro’s Day Off” from Volume 1, the “Valentine’s Chocolate” story from Volume 2, and Konowe’s training adventure from Volume 3 are easily my favorites among these.) These manga are long out-of-print but tend to be very reasonable on the used market, running about $15-25 USD on eBay at the time of this review if you find them from the right seller. As I mentioned near the outset of the review, true Hanaukyo fanatics or completionists can also check out fan translations to finish the story.

Well, we’ve maid it more than halfway through Maid May, reader. Stick around – there’s more frilly foolery of the anime maid variety to come!

MANGA REVIEW: Franken Fran Omnibus 1 (Vol. 1-2)

Fran 7

Delightful? Possibly. Depraved? Definitely!

Franken Fran (by Katsuhisa Kigitsu) tells the twisted story of Fran Madaraki, the only “daughter” of the mad Dr. Madaraki, who recently went missing. Thankfully, the good doc taught Fran almost everything he knew, so she has been carrying on in his stead by performing medical miracles for the highest bidder or whoever captures her sympathy. However, Fran’s sympathy should be regarded in the same light as a tiger’s attention, as it’s by no means always a good thing. Fran’s upbringing with the doctor has left her a little warped, and her idea of a happy ending and the ideas of her patients are often worlds apart.

The first thing to understand about Franken Fran is that it is at its core a collection of horror tales. I can see where the suggestive-looking cover or Fran’s whimsical, funny personality could mislead you, but don’t be fooled into thinking you’re purchasing light fare. This manga comes from an incredibly dark moral place where right and wrong have precious little bearing on the outcome. Yes, Fran has a tendency to always punish the guilty, but she has an equally strong record of perpetrating grotesque surgeries and atrocities on the innocent and the ethically neutral who have the misfortune to fall under her care. This book does contain a few genuinely happy endings, but even in those, there is usually some instance of stomach-churning collateral damage or a total mind-screw of a final twist.

Fran 5

Truly, the only “moral” to be found in Franken Fran is that you should never intentionally seek help from Fran… like, ever. I watch a lot of horror movies and am hard to shock, but after marathoning the 380 pages of utter depravity contained in this two-volume omnibus, I felt morally exhausted. I felt like I needed to put everything else aside and read my Bible for a while. For that reason alone, setting aside this series’ absolutely sick artwork, bizarre plot lines, or gobs of gratuitous gore, I have to warn you that this series is the definition of an acquired taste.

Fran 6With all these warnings out of the way, I can now breathe a little and say that this manga is absolutely stunning and easily my favorite manga release this year. Why? Above all else, the quality of the writing. The sheer originality of some of these stories is breathtaking, especially when it comes to Fran’s radical medical solutions, and some of the final twists take a moment to wrap your head around. It also bases its half-baked ideas on real science; among other things, this volume finally helped me “get” stem cells.

Furthermore, Fran herself is quite an interesting character. Her actions are morally repugnant at times, but there’s almost always solid logic behind them, as well as a genuine desire to do the right thing. She truly wants to help people and puts everything she has into doing that. The problem is that her “unique” upbringing has warped her notion of what an acceptable outcome should look like – you just have to take her as she is and hope she grows in understanding as the series progresses. Seven Seas’ choice to make Fran slur or stretch her words sometimes was a cute touch that helped me “hear” the character a little better, and it went right along with her uncoordinated wobble when she isn’t focused.

The excellent writing is served and complimented by powerful, visceral artwork. We have character models with a variety of ages, backgrounds, and even nationalities, and the backgrounds are straight out of a Hammer horror film. The gold point is in Fran’s grotesque experiments, which literally have to be seen to be believed, but the author does just as impressive work with the finished monsters. I was especially struck by the hulking lab techs who always seem to appear out of nowhere whenever Fran goes into serious mode when it comes to surgery – the brute force they convey gives many of the surprise procedures the desperate helplessness of a rape scene. The change that comes over Fran herself at these moments, transitioning from staggering half-loopiness to frightening intensity, was also perfect.

Fran 3

Besides the flat-out moral discomfort you get from Fran, really the only negative thing I have to say about the book at all is that the translation sometimes got muddy in the most unfortunate places. It always sounded natural (so, great localization), but the meaning was occasionally unclear, which became a real problem at certain twist endings. I had to re-read the ends to a few chapters and compare Seven Seas’ translation to some online fanslations to make sure I understood what was going on. There might have been some ambiguity in the Japanese as well, I guess, but I hope this will be less of a problem in future volumes.

So, that’s Franken Fran, warts and all. Because this manga is so nasty and so much of a head trip, I’m going to take the unusual step of not recommending it outright despite personally loving it. If you’re unsure, you’ll really just need to read a few pages or take the plunge to purchase it to see what you think. What I can and will say, however, is that this is one of the best-produced, original, and daring manga I have ever read. You can’t beat it for sheer nerve – which makes sense. Fran probably has a lot of sheer nerves lying around in her basement…

Fran 8

MANGA REVIEW: My Monster Secret

My Monster Secret 1

The “monster girl” craze continues with this new manga by Eiji Masuda. My Monster Secret tells the story of Kuromine Asahi, a high school student with a nonexistent poker face who can’t tell a fib or keep a secret to save his life, to the point where his classmates have taken to calling him the “Holey Sieve” (because he spills everything). However, Kuromine has an important secret he doesn’t want blown prematurely, which is that he’s crushing hard on his quiet and mysterious classmates Youko Shiragami. He tries to catch her alone to tell her he likes her before his face gives him away, but in doing so, he discovers she’s a vampire! She plans to leave the school immediately, but he convinces her to stay with the promise that, just this once, he won’t spill the beans. What will be the outcome when the guy who can’t keep a secret embraces a secret that must be kept?

My Monster Secret has a very cute premise, and the execution lives up to its cute potential. Kuromine’s inability to keep his heart off his sleeve is funny and endearing, and the once-quiet Youko opens up to him to become a bubbly (and totally oblivious) girl with a million-dollar fanged smile. (Seven Seas Manga decided to translate her brash Osaka accent as a Valley Girl in their localization, which is an interesting choice, but for the most part it works.) Most of the other characters in the book aren’t as vibrant but do serve their purpose – the only exception is the class rep Nagisa Aizawa, who is actually more interesting than the two main characters and who has an odd secret of her own. And in terms of this book’s virtues, the artwork absolutely has to be mentioned. With unique and well-drawn character models and great facial expressions, the art is fantastic and is easily the best part of the book.

My Monster Secret 3

Unfortunately, the brilliant artwork is underserved by a lot of sub-par comedy and lazy writing. The big problem with My Monster Secret is that it’s a romantic comedy that’s neither particularly funny nor all that romantic. This book telegraphs its jokes about a page in advance so that by the time the punchline finally lands, it has lost considerable steam, and the book’s heavy reliance on characters’ overblown reactions (“Oh, wow! Oh, no! Isn’t that crazy?!”) is seldom enough to keep the gags from landing like a lead balloon. It also misses a lot of opportunities to use its “monster girl” premise in funny and creative ways by downplaying it. Part of what makes series like Monster Musume and A Centaur’s Life really work is that they don’t shy away from exploring the pros and cons that come with being a particular monster-person. On the contrary, they embrace it, and it’s often their most interesting subject matter and the source of their best jokes. Other than making sure people don’t get too good a look at her teeth, we don’t see much in the way of “vampire problems” from Youko Shiragami just yet. As for the romance department, the first volume contains minuscule romantic tension because none of the characters (even the lovestruck ones) seem to be able to work themselves into anything like anxiety or self doubt – anything more than temporary annoyance, really – over their romantic failures.

In this manga’s defense, I do get the strong vibe that perhaps it was geared toward a considerably younger reader than yours truly (I’m thinking younger teens, probably age 10-16), and a reader of that age might be a lot more forgiving than I was on the points listed above. With that said, I can’t help but think that even my teenaged self might have felt his intelligence a little insulted by its shortcomings. There are too many good series out there that allow you to have your cake and eat it too (funny jokes and interesting / emotionally mature writing) to completely excuse a lapse in either area.

My Monster Secret 2

Despite its flaws, I’m not ready to completely write this series off, because it has enough potential and positive things going for it that a second-volume rebound is entirely possible. The art is absolutely stellar, and the main characters are likeable enough that I’ll probably keep reading My Monster Secret if it manages to drag its emotional maturity up to a more adult level. I will be browsing Volume 2 in the bookstore before taking it home, though. I’d rate this one a mild recommend (and it’s very clean, ye parents) for readers 16 and under, but probably only for dedicated “monster girl” fanatics above that age.

Note: This review was also published by the author on under the same pen name.

MANGA REVIEW: Never Give Up!


When you wanna be his girl, but you look like his homeboy

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, it’s time to review a particularly good and particularly weird love story. I can’t think of a more deserving candidate on both counts than the manga Never Give Up by Hiromu Mutou, published in English by TokyoPop. Never Give Up tells the story of a boyish girl in love with a girlish boy, who unwillingly adopts an alter-ego of a manly man to protect her girlish boy from girly girls and manly men who love men. If that made your head spin, let me start at the beginning…

Kiri Minase is the daughter of a modeling agent and a male model, and she inherited their good genes – but unfortunately for her, she almost exclusively got her dad’s masculine good looks. Standing nearly 6 feet tall, curveless but athletic, with short hair that refuses to grow out, a piercing but kind gaze, and flawless, sculpted facial features, Kiri is the kind of girl who makes other girls feel sexually confused, and she’s none too happy about it. Making matters worse, Tohya Enishi, the boy she’s loved since childhood, is quite handsome but very petite and delicate. Kiri promised as a child that she wouldn’t consider herself worthy of him until she became more beautiful and princess-like than her prince, a declaration she has come to heartily regret in the present. Below, she vents to the sympathetic ear (ahem) of her best friend, Natsu.

Never Give Up 3

The awkward close friendship between Kiri and Tohya reaches a crisis point when Kiri’s mother (Satsuki Minase) recruits Tohya as a male model for her agency. Kiri has long been insecure about her connection with Tohya, and this news freaks her out as she imagines her beautiful beau thrown into a sexual feeding frenzy of experienced women and gay men. She demands that her mother hire her as a model as well so she can watch over him, which earns her a blow to the head and a “That’s rich!” from her not-exactly-gentle mom. However, when Satsuki’s other male model unexpectedly cancels, her mother offers her the chance to “go undercover” and take his place as a male model.

Kiri reluctantly accepts and does the gig under the alter ego “Tatsuki,” but what was supposed to be a small, one-time fib becomes a life-consuming act when Tohya and Kiri hit the big-time together as the hottest new thing in male modeling. Kiri’s mercenary mom refuses to let her quit, and Kiri herself is reluctant to retire “Tatsuki” because it lets her spend time with Tohya and watch out for him. Still, every success as Tatsuki is carrying her farther and farther from her goal of becoming the kind of woman she yearns to be. Further complicating matters, the aloof Tohya is incredibly hard to read, and suitors of both sexes start coming after Kiri and Tohya on the job in ways that constantly threaten to blow her cover or break her heart. Can Kiri and Tohya make it to “happy ever after” as princess and prince – and if it ever happens, will each of them be wearing the right clothes?


Never Give Up was a wonderful surprise to me. I approached the series skeptically as likely shojo manga fluff, but I was quickly drawn in by its quirky premise, fantastic humor, and great cast of characters. Kiri, in particular, is such a loveable heroine, and a rather unique one at that. Most “girls who look like boys” in anime and manga are petite gals with short hair who pass as small guys thanks to the right clothes (ex. Haruhi Fujioka in Ouran Host Club or Naoto Shirogane in Persona 4), but all it takes is an easy wardrobe change for them to undergo a feminine transformation at the finale. No such luck for Kiri! She truly has to find and seize an idea of beauty a little outside the mainstream if she wants to reach a happy ending. She’s also a very insecure and volatile teenage girl who tends to react faster than she thinks, which sometimes plays out in hilarious ways – her best friend has to hold her down from “Goodbye cruel world”-ing her way out an open window twice in just the first volume!

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The rest of the cast is just as good in their way. Tohya is a real cold fish most of the time, but it quickly becomes clear that Kiri’s feelings are not one-sided, and he’s fighting his own insecurities about the way he looks in comparison to her. Kiri’s mom is delightfully blunt without being cruel, and her dad (when he finally gets introduced) is a freak in all the right ways. Kiri’s no-nonsense best friend, Natsu, provides grounding throughout this wild tale, and the cast of personalities we meet in the modeling world are vibrant and unpredictable.

The art style in this manga is fairly simple most of the time, but in a way that feels uncluttered and clean – I liked it very much. I also felt like the pacing was generally good, and TokyoPop did a great job with the localization. You’ll see a few eyebrow-raisers like “Don’t be hatin’!”, but for the most part the translation sounds very natural without dating itself. (NOTE: The pictures shown on this page are taken from a scanslation for clarity’s sake. TokyoPop’s licensed translation is far, far superior.)

There are really only two things about this manga that hurt its quality as a recommendation. The first is the manga’s fault, which is that while Kiri’s insecurities can be compelling in short doses, they can become a bit annoying if you’re marathoning the series. At some points, you kind of want to shake her and tell her to stop boo-hooing and assuming the worst. The second thing isn’t the manga’s fault, but it is a bummer: Never Give Up was never completed in English. Its American publisher, TokyoPop, collapsed right about the time that Volume 8 came out, and to date no other company has licensed it. Between so many new series coming out each year and many better-known series from that time meeting the same fate, I’m not holding my breath for Never Give Up to be rescued, the title notwithstanding.

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That’s a shame, because this series really is both sweet and unique. It explores concepts of gender and beauty in a refreshing way by recognizing that sometimes men and women don’t fit into society’s ideas of what they should look like, and no amount of “makeover” will fix that. It explores how that “failure” messes with their heads, but it also shows a way out through unconditional love and slowly-accumulated self-respect. And, in the case of Kiri’s misadventures, it keeps the reader cracking up the entire time. Highly recommended.




Never Give Up is out of print, but since it’s neither rare nor widely known, supply and demand are on your side. You can probably pick it up very cheap. I’d recommend checking Hastings, eBay, Robert’s Anime Corner Store, or RightStuf’s clearance bin as good places to purchase this title.