Reviewby Casey Brienza, May 9th 2009
Kyoko Mogami's budding career as a television drama actress hasn't left her much time lately for the Love Me section, but she hasn't graduated from her pink jumpsuit just yet! And now the president has assigned her a very special new duty—to take care of the legendary international actor Koo Hizuri during his stay in Japan. Although he treats her like dirt in the beginning, her pluck soon warms him to her, at least marginally, and after learning her ambitions, he puts a bizarre challenge before her to help her increase her acting ability. Now Kyoko is pretending to be Koo's son Kuon when he was a young boy. What is the connection between Kuon and her fairy prince Corn? And what in the world is Ren going to think when he sees this newest gig of hers?
In the previous volume of Skip Beat!, she has written herself into the proverbial corner, and it was hard to imagine how she was going to get herself out of it. The manga's central appeal is the comically exaggerated—yet eminently sympathetic—driving rage of the heroine. She has been horribly used and abused by the central figures (invariably men) in her life, and you cannot help but cheer her and her army of ghostly “Grudge Kyokos” on. While, of course, laughing yourself senseless at the visual extremities of her antics. But the most recent subplot seemed to be taking the series deeper in the direction of romantic comedy, and since anger cannot abide in the same place as love, its future prospects were starting to look terribly compromised.
Leave it to a gifted, veteran shoujo storyteller like Yoshiki Nakamura (Tokyo Crazy Paradise) to find a brilliant emergency exit—while taking Skip Beat! to a whole new level of greatness in the process. Most of volume eighteen focuses upon the interaction between Kyoko and legendary actor Koo Hizuri. Koo is a rare animal in the Japanese world of celebrity—he has also made it big in Hollywood—and he might as well be royalty whenever he returns to the country of his birth. Kyoko has ostensibly been hired to cook traditional Kyoto meals for him, but in actuality he and the president have some intriguing, unspoken reasons for putting her with him.
In order to improve her acting abilities, Koo instructs Kyoko to practice pretending to be his young son Kuon. Her development and execution of the Kuon character are among the most unabashedly enjoyable bits of the manga this far—and trust me, that's saying a lot. You will love her interactions with the slightly oddball but otherwise benevolent Koo, and the development of her acting skills truly is a joy to watch. Of course, there is a big bit of dramatic irony here, and the way in which this subplot also treats ingeniously with the back story that involves the heroine's past with Ren is just icing on an already delicious cake. This series will keep you hooked by dint of the suspense alone. What will Kyoko do when she realizes who her fairy prince Corn actually is? And why exactly is Ren so troubled by the demons of his past?
As you might expect, given this particular volume's trajectory, the feminist anger has been dialed down a few notches…at least temporarily. Still, there is a scene, not to be missed, in the beginning where Koo rejects Kyoko's cooking, and Kyoko forces the hodgepodge mess of what's left after he has disposed of it on him anyway. Needless to say, his reaction just makes the scene all the more hilarious. There is also the obligatory moment of gloom and doom played for the reader laughs when Kyoko realizes that Sho may be pulling away again while she falls further and further behind (doing grunt work for a star instead of trying to become one). Moments like these are priceless in their visual richness and levity, and they keep the series from becoming too melodramatic or self-pitying.
Skip Beat!'s primary downside, if it could be called a weakness at all, is its artwork. Although they often require an idiosyncratic, method of visual reading, the pages invariably boast excellent layouts that, once you get accustomed to the mangaka's style, provide an easy, natural reading experience. She also has wonderful expressive range, taking her characters from seductive to silly and back again with grace and élan. Yet the character designs themselves are, let us not mince words, shrewish at best and ugly at worst. The strangely feral facial features of the principal characters, especially the female ones, may be enough to discourage casual book store browsers from buying altogether.
This series is one of the best contemporary shoujo manga titles—hands down—that Viz Media is currently releasing in English. It is simply not to be missed…especially if you have a weakness for showbiz stories spiced up with a heroine's epic quest for vengeance.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : B
+ Skip Beat! is great because women the world over understand Kyoko's anger...and root for her.
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