Reviewby Casey Brienza, Aug 8th 2009
Ann has officially decided to start dating Fuji, and they couldn't be happier. At least at first. Ann and the rest of her high school classmates are busy cramming for college entrance exams, and Fuji the brilliant student is glad to help, but the preoccupation with academics means that he and Ann get precisely nowhere with their new romantic relationship. To make matters worse, Ann can't quite give up on Daigo, and no matter how hard she tries, her memories of him are not transforming from sad to sweet. When she learns that he is dating her one-time tormenter, it drives her over the edge. On the plus side, Ann is not the only one with an exciting love life; she learns that Kaede Kuroki has been dating her dad—and that she is pregnant! Could a blended family be in the offing?
Sand Chronicles isn't about saving the world…or destroying it. These teenagers don't have superpowers; their adolescent angst isn't going to knock the planet from its orbit or reshape the destiny of humanity. That is not the sort of story Hinako Ashihara won a Shogakukan Manga Award for. No, rather, she was recognized for writing an affective story about realistic teenaged troubles and triumphs. In their little world of Tokyo and Shimane, what happens matters—it matters a lot—and best of all, it will matter to this series' faithful readers as well.
And sure enough, volume six is an emotional rollercoaster for Sand Chronicles' appealing cast of characters. The book opens with Ann and Fuji—in a rather comic fashion, of course—officially becoming an item. Unfortunately, because college entrance exams are coming up for the young people this year, their new romantic relationship goes precisely nowhere. Even when they take a supposed “study vacation” at a beachside cottage, and their friends leave them ample opportunity to take things to the next level, what instead occurs is a violent devolvement of good, fellow feeling between the new couple. Ann, as it turns out, is unable to forget Daigo—learning that he has apparently taken a politically unpleasant new girlfriend back in Shimane does not exactly help matters either—and casting away the symbolically fraught hourglass does not succeed. Both she and Fuji take this as a sign…and not a good one.
Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom in Ann's life, and the manga is also great for belly laugh comic relief. If it were just the subplot detailed in the previous paragraph of this review, the volume would be flatly unreadable. On the positive side of life, Shika has extended the olive branch from faraway Canada, and she and Ann begin regular postal correspondence. It's a comfort to Ann, particularly since her relationship with Shika's brother has become so strained.
There is likewise new life in the Minase family. Ann's father, as it turns out, has been secretly dating Kaede for the past year, and now Kaede is pregnant. At first, she is revolved to raise the child as a single mother, but, with plenty of noble good humor, Ann convinces her to reconsider. (“Just think of the meals your child will eat!”) And so, Ann's grandparents make their first ever trip to Tokyo for their ex-son-in-law's wedding. While admitting an odd thing for in-laws to do in a Western context, it makes sense given that Ann herself is the only descendant that these two elderly people have left. Even at her worst, at least there is an affirmation of life in Ann's horizon. Given all the tragedy of the first half of the book, it's nice to see some “Let's get 'em hitched!” style comedy.
Ashihara's creative confidence has, if possible, grown over the course of this series. She makes much more liberal use of comically exaggerated facial expressions, almost shounen manga-esque in style, than she did in previous volumes, and the story continues to grapple some pretty hard-to-stomach issues. A parent's suicide is heavy stuff on its own, but over time you start to see how her mother's death has reverberated down Ann's life. No bounce back cheerful, as if nothing ever happened, heroine here. Nope. You get the feeling, on reading this volume, that Ashihara herself is feeling her way through this depiction of the aftermath of tragedy and the persistence of grief in a very non-deliberate, ad hoc fashion. Ann is growing with the series.
In any case, the mangaka announces the receipt of the Shogakukan Manga Award for Sand Chronicles in this volume. It's a pleasure to see such a skilled creator's talent and drive so justly rewarded. Were you just to ruffle through the pages of a random volume, you would think that this is just another stereotyped schooldays shoujo manga romance. You would not suspect, from the typical, airy shoujo artwork, that the treatment of such themes as out-of-wedlock pregnancy and parental suicide would be placed center stage. But that is what this series does, and for that it is great.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : B+
+ Intensely emotional, in both its tragedy and comedy, yet genuine.
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