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A collection of short stories reveals the dimensions of love and friendship in various settings. A young girl must choose between a humble life in the woods or serving as a prince's concubine, a priestess on a tropical island discovers the dangers of falling in love with an outsider, a castle servant struggles to hide a familial secret from his master, and a coal-mining orphan in 19th-century London overcomes poverty through a series of fateful encounters. Other tales stay closer to home: childhood friends who have drifted apart wonder if they could ever understand each other again, a long-distance relationship is strained by the presence of a third party, and two high achievers in the same class find that their mutual admiration for each other may be more than just academic.
For those whose knowledge of Masami Tsuda only extends as far as Kare Kano (and who could blame you—it easily overshadows anything else she's done), her wide-ranging choice of subject matter in Castle of Dreams may come as a surprise. In a world where shoujo manga is synonymous with cookie-cutter school romances, this collection of tales is impressive in its cosmopolitan scope: a Middle Eastern kingdom, a South Seas island, Victorian England—perhaps the only locale Tsuda missed is Antarctica. And even though the stories all cover the same general theme of love, it turns out there are many ways to express it, from childhood innocence to exotic passion to the powerful bonds of family. Any manga-ka can set out to create a deeply emotional story, but it takes a talent like Tsuda's to make the reader feel it.
The first half of this double-sized volume leans heavily toward the fantasy side, with a trio of one-shots cleverly held together by the common thread of a wish-granting sorcerer. Although it seems gimmicky, his presence is not intrusive at all; each story still gets plenty of space to develop in its own way. "In the Forest," for example, digs into the challenge of a romantic rivalry against someone who's already dead—a sentiment powerfully expressed through words as well as actions. Perhaps the only place this story trips up is in its happy-skippy (but still bittersweet) reset ending. "I Am the Mermaid," on the other hand, achieves emotional satisfaction all the way to the end, while also echoing the Little Mermaid fairytale. But it's the titular story, "Castle of Dreams," that is perhaps the most unique—the key twist is easy to guess, but it manages to explore the idea of brotherly love without getting all incestuous about it.
The second half of this volume is something of a B-side: the remaining four stories are more ragged in execution, dating all the way back to the first few years of Tsuda's career. "The Room Where an Angel Lives" is the most polished, with its historical English setting and a Great Expectations-like plot of a boy rising beyond his social class, but even this sweet and soaring love story is rife with predictable plot twists. Everything after that is typical high-school romance fodder, but there are still a handful of pleasant surprises in store; "I Won't Go" combines long-distance relationship and love triangle and produces a surprisingly incisive look at the whirlwind of feelings that comes from being torn between two lovers. Even "Because I Have You," in all its amateurish, poorly-paced glory, manages to eke out the seeds of high-school overachiever cuteness that would eventually become Kare Kano's comedy side.
As a compilation of shorts spanning several years, it's hard to pin down any specific assessment of the book's artistic style. The second half is obviously less polished, and even non-artists will be quick to spot shaky penstrokes and asymmetric faces—but there's still something endearing about the raw emotion packed into those uneven lines. Meanwhile, the fantasy artwork in the first half shows more confidence and experience (as well as costume research), but also reveals a universal truth: romance-centric artists cannot do action scenes to save their lives. But if there is one constant throughout Tsuda's art—and the main reason that even her early work is tolerable—it's that she understands layout and pacing better than most of her peers. Yes, the heart-stopping multi-page scenes in the fantasy stories are wonderful, but even something like "I Won't Go" (dating back to 1995) shows a remarkable talent for dramatic silences and the ability to freeze a moment in time. With that kind of skill, even a shaky-handed artist can hold an emotional grip on the reader.
Holding an emotional grip on the reader also means getting the words right, and that's where the fantasy element really shows its strength. More than just a direct translation from Japanese, the language in stories like "In the Forest" and "Castle of Dreams" is almost poetic in tone, especially in the internal monologue and narration. Often, it's an expressive choice of words that can mean the difference between canned lines and a truly tearjerking moment. By comparison, the high school stories are far more pedestrian, but then again, that's probably what everyone was expecting from that subgenre. Sound effects, meanwhile, are translated in a mix-and-match way—most of them get a small translation placed next to the original characters, but some non-essential effects are left as-is.
As this collection of one-shots proves, there's far more to Masami Tsuda than just being "the Kare Kano person." Any fan of good, heartfelt romance will find something to like here, especially in the stories that soar off to exotic fantasy locales. Not every tale is perfectly polished—that's to be expected anytime you dust off an author's early and mid-career works—but there's a certain level of talent that shines past the mechanical errors and plot hiccups. Even the most mediocre artist will eventually draw straighter lines with time, but knowing exactly where to put each image on the page is a far more elusive ability. For Tsuda to have it naturally is a gift; to share it with readers in stories like these is a blessing.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Imaginative locales, powerful emotions, and masterful layouts make every story a satisfying one.
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