Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 6th 2006
Kiri Koshiba has an unusual talent for hairstyling—but even though she helps out at her dad's beauty salon, she has no real interest in taking up the family business. On the reverse side is Shogo Narumi, the ambitious leader of the Scissors Project, a team of boys who specialize in giving makeovers to certain girls at school. When one of Kiri's friends is rejected for a makeover by the Scissors Project, Kiri takes the matter into her own hands and fixes up her friend's hair. However, the masterful cut soon catches the attention of Narumi and the rest of the school. Who is this mystery student who dares to match the skill of the Scissors Project? Although Kiri tries to stay out of the spotlight, she just can't escape it: Narumi has challenged the elusive stylist to a "haircut battle" at the school cultural festival!
Make no mistake: Beauty Pop is a girls' manga about a traditionally girly subject and runs in the top selling girls' manga magazine in Japan. But what sets it apart is how it cleverly borrows the core elements of boys' action-adventure series: challenges, rivalries, and feats of skill. It may wear a shoujo face with the multicolored pastel-neon cover and all the talk of being pretty, but underneath beats a heart of burning passion that's all about Being The Best. It's just that this time, our heroes want to be the best at ... hairdressing. Sounds a bit odd, but just wait until you read it—even newcomers to the cosmetic arts will find it easy to get into this fun, fast-paced battle for hairstyling supremacy.
To see how a good manga jumps right into the story, just read the first five pages of this volume—that's all it takes to explain Kiri's special skill and give us a glimpse of her personality. Unlike other young protagonists who practically explode with wide-eyed enthusiasm, Kiri is a shy, humble character; somehow, this inversion makes her even more interesting than if she'd been the typical perky heroine. In fact, Narumi's fiery ambitions almost threaten to overpower the storyline, but there's one reason he never takes the lead: anything Narumi does, Kiri can do better. Naturally, an underdog outperforming the self-proclaimed Number One is tension just waiting to happen, and it takes only a few chapters for their rivalry to develop a full head of steam.
Going into the second half of the volume, the brisk pace never lets up: a challenge appears in the form of the ugliest girl in school, and the subsequent haircut battle is as good a climax as any (along with a fist-clenching cliffhanger). From Page 1 to 191, Kiyoko Arai shows full command of narrative flow, balancing action and dialogue to keep the reader hooked. Memorable characters help too; aside from our yin-and-yang leads, the supporting cast is equally entertaining, with playful Kei and cool-headed Ochiai on the Scissors Project and boisterous Taro on Kiri's side.
However, skillful storytelling can't hide a cultural message that could be taken the wrong way. Kiri's dad says it openly: "In this world, there are a lot of girls who want to be pretty. Why don't you work some of your magic on those girls?" Surely girls these days have other priorities besides looking pretty. That's the danger of Beauty Pop's subject matter—it's suggesting that a superficial makeover is the solution to improving one's life. Let's hope that impressionable young readers strive to be more like cool, crafty Kiri than the passive test subjects who end up in the barber's chair.
In a series that's all about haircuts and good looks, artwork is crucial, but most of what you'll see here doesn't go much beyond mainstream shoujo. Kiri and company are easy to tell apart, but look a little too much like they were copied out of Wataru Yoshizumi's sketchpad. Meanwhile, the hairstyles on display aren't exactly going to blow you away with innovation or anything; this is more about taking "dumpy and ordinary" and transforming it into "reasonably attractive." Background art is even less impressive, just an afterthought that takes the cheap way out with lots of screentone patterns. To her credit, though, Arai's linework and layouts are better than average, with confident inking and panel placement that's a bit loose but still easy to follow. Even the dialogue bubbles are well-planned, with no confusion over who's talking.
Straightforward phrasing also helps to keep the dialogue simple, while at the same time adding some flavor and personality. (Taro's self-absorbed monologues are especially good at this.) Interestingly, this localization leans more towards "Japanese-ness" than one usually expects for Viz releases; honorific suffixes are retained in the translation and explained with a minor glossary in the back. Even cutesy nicknames like "Naru-rin" make it through the adaptation process. However, sound effects are still replaced entirely with English equivalents, although a wide variety of fonts helps to blend them into the artwork. Print quality is sharp and binding is solid, so this volume is built to last ... right there on the shelf with many other titles in the Shôjo Beat line.
Beauty Pop's strongest points are its originality and pacing: few manga titles out there can claim to be about competitive hairdressing, while also matching the addictive energy of a fight/tournament series. Kiri's laid-back attitude also adds a dose of freshness to the story; it's nice to see a shoujo heroine that isn't boy-crazy or pathetically clumsy for once. Still, there are some weaknesses, including so-so artwork, and the chauvinistic idea that getting a cute haircut will make everything better in a girl's life. But if you can get past these issues, an entertaining story awaits—one that's all about the surprisingly tricky art of creating perfect hair forever.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : C+
+ A fun, fast-paced story that makes its specialized subject matter interesting.
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