Reviewby Carlo Santos, Oct 10th 2008
Neighborhood girls Nobue, Chika, Miu, Matsuri, and Ana are up to their usual antics again. A photo album brings back some childhood memories, while Nobue looks for a part-time job, and later on, mischievous Miu tries to figure out why Matsuri and Ana are considered cuter than her (especially when wearing animal ears). Wordplay also takes center stage as the girls figure out the meanings of their names and study some English. In the meantime, Miu plots a few more devious schemes like stealing Chika's pudding and "rehabilitating" Matsuri to help overcome her clumsiness. Then when Valentine's Day rolls around, it's time to give out chocolates (mostly to tomboyish Nobue), and learn what it means to be best friends.
If the moe phenomenon is so maligned, it's probably because there are very few titles that get it right. Strawberry Marshmallow is one that does, and Volume 5 finds the manga series soaring comfortably above its lesser peers. Barasui's sense of humor stands alone, subtle and sarcastic, never taking the easy way out. Artistically, too, the level of detail and nuance goes well beyond the expectation of "cute girls doing cute things" and reveals a uniquely appealing style. And the stories themselves, although short and simple, often develop in unexpected ways—turning the world of the ordinary into a comedy that is anything but.
It would be easy to pin Strawberry Marshmallow's success on a single character and say, "Well, everyone thinks it's funny because Miu acts like a complete loony." And that's true to an extent—Miu is essentially Yotsuba Koiwai with fangs, a deranged child who perceives the world on her own terms and forces others to live in it. But she is nothing without other characters to interact with: would Miu's attempt to rehabilitate Matsuri be half as hilarious without Matsuri whimpering and wobbling her way through the whole process? Would Miu's neverending quest to annoy Chika and Nobue be any fun without the two of them snapping back at her? And that's why this is one series that can get away without needing proper character development; their personalities are already so perfectly developed and balanced against each other that they can stay the way they are and the humor basically writes itself.
As for the humor, well, what more need be said except that it's still better than almost everything else? The creativity and timing are consistently spot-on, with golden moments like Matsuri wearing a horse's head (must be seen to be believed!), fun with names in kanji (a hilarious exercise for those interested in studying Japanese), and of course, the timeless gag where Miu says something dumb and appears face-down on the ground a second later. And that, perhaps, is the essence of the series' irreproducible humor: don't show the slap, show what happens right after it. Now that is true wit and subtlety, a fact that is often lost on other gagfests that try to be as loud and wacky as possible and end up being mere annoyances. This quiet, quirky sense of humor—often letting a single image or word (FUNGAAAH!) speak for itself—is the cure for the common comedy.
Of course, letting the images speak for themselves wouldn't be possible without a certain level of talent. Like most artists in the genre, Barasui has an eye for broad physical comedy (Miu barging in through the window, Matsuri's fits of clumsiness), but he's also just as likely to deliver the payoff with a quiet little panel that lets the reader fill in the blanks (like the aforementioned Miu slap). But it's not just about picking what to draw in each panel, but also putting them in the right order—and that's where this series' sense of timing stands out. Even with completely rectangular layouts, certain devices like repeated images and momentary silences give each page a quirky visual rhythm that hits the punchlines right on the beat. But for all this talk of subtle techniques and timing, the art succeeds on a more outward level as well: the character designs and linework are delicate and distinctive, and the backgrounds—usually the laziest part of a manga-ka's repertoire—show a strong attention to detail with bedroom interiors and suburban exteriors. (However, they're also just as likely to be left blank so that the characters can take center stage).
Visual quality is important in any comic, of course, but also essential to this series' sense of humor is what comes out of the characters' mouths: the biting dialogue that thankfully comes out just as sarcastic in the translation. Even the wordplay gags come out funny; referring to Matsuri (茉莉) as "Fragrant plant originating from India" is funny no matter which language you say it in. What's best, of course, is when images and text come together perfectly—Miu doing a ridiculous contortion and screaming, "Check out this soothing pose!" or texting Chika with ASCII-art messages that make no sense. Sound effects are a more unpredictable proposition, though, with some getting translated and others being left in raw Japanese, but that's okay, because the ones that really matter—like Nobue doing a flying kick to the very appropriate sound of "VIOLENCE!"—do get translated.
If there is any flaw to Strawberry Marshmallow, it's that the serialization runs so slowly that even Japan doesn't have a release date for Volume 6 yet. (Funnily enough, the "coming next volume" page in this edition is basically a "we don't know what's in the next volume" placeholder.) So enjoy this one at your own pace, and know that the best things in life are worth waiting for. All right—maybe not the best things in life, but the best things in slice-of-life comedy, a genre that is phenomenally popular but also phenomenally easy to screw up. This is one series that does not screw it up, and the continuing exploits of the Marshmallow girls are a quirky delight that deserve to be on any comedy lover's shelf.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Witty, well-timed humor, polished art, and an adorable cast of characters that's worth visiting again and again.
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