Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun
Chiyo Sakura is a high school girl with a crush. The boy she likes is Nozaki-kun, a tall, handsome, yet stoic fellow she can't help but swoon over. But when she tries to confess her love for him, instead Nozaki whips out an autograph board and signs...the name of a shoujo mangaka? It turns out that Nozaki-kun moonlights as a successful shoujo manga creator, something he keeps a secret from almost everyone, and Chiyo has just joined his inner circle. Will filling in black spaces win her his heart? And after getting to know him, will she still want it?
Izumi Tsubaki is best known in the English-language market for her two shoujo series, both published by Viz: The Magic Touch and Oresama Teacher. Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun, however is neither – it runs in a Shounen Magazine (Gangan Online) and is published in English by Yen Press. It's also a four-panel gag manga, which may come as a surprise. Fortunately the switch to the shorter format and the change in genre has done great things for Tsubaki's work, and Nozaki-kun is off to a very entertaining start.
The story's point of view character is Chiyo Sakura, an ordinary high school girl with ribbons in her hair and a crush on the tall, dark, and handsome boy at school, Nozaki-kun. She's never really interacted with him, but her feelings just can't be repressed any longer, so she tries to confess her love to him...only to be handed an autograph. At first it just looks like a conceited thing to do, but when she looks harder at the signature, Chiyo realizes that Nozaki has signed the name Sakiko Yumeno, a popular shoujo manga creator. Baffled, Chiyo soon learns that Nozaki and Sakiko are one and the same, and before she can quite get a handle on what's going on, she's somehow become the assistant in charge of filling in black spaces. Soon she meets Nozaki's other two assistants, both other boys at school, and her dream of love deteriorates into a sort of bizarre comedy. She's not always sure that it's worth it, but luckily for us, she can't seem to leave...
Readers of Oresama Teacher will recognize the roots of this series in that one. Early volumes of Oresama Teacher directly mocked the conventions of shoujo manga, which does form part of the humor in this volume, albeit more from the creator's side than the reader's. She has also gotten much more adept at the four-panel format, something which also began appearing in the previous series as a way to include other, non-plot related characters. The rhythm of the strips is consistent without being pat, and if we can generally see where a gag is going, it doesn't necessarily make that joke less funny. It helps as well that the panels are rectangular, which gives Tsubaki space to add details as needed and not strictly rely on facial expressions and verbal jokes. It still takes some getting used to – in some ways reading this is more like reading a collection of Garfield strips compiled into a book – but once you get into it, reading goes very quickly. Unlike in her other series, at this point there aren't too many characters to keep track of, which is also facilitates easy reading as well as allowing us to see each of the players' quirks. Some are more one note than others – Chiyo is very definitely the straight man, and while Mikorin's playboy aspirations that he can never fulfill are funny, there isn't much else to him. The theater club members look a little more promising.
Given that the series is a comedy about drawing manga, it is reasonable to suspect that much of the humor will come from the making and publishing of a shoujo title. That's for the most part true, but Tsubaki mixes those parts with just flat-out spoofing shoujo in the school scenes, which account for about half of the book. The inability of boys to speak like shoujo princes is a good recurring theme, and some sections almost feel as if they've been lifted from The Daily Lives of High School Boys, such as when the guys all play a dating sim before realizing that the truest love was obviously between the hero and his best (male) friend. Chiyo's reaction to finding their resulting (beautifully executed) doujinshi makes this one of the best sequences in the book.
Despite the relative sparsity and small size of the panels, Tsubaki's art never feels cramped. It is attractive, with clean lines and nicely balanced use of tone (which can feel overwhelming in four-panel series, I find), and all of the main characters are easy to distinguish. For the most part Yen Press' translation and presentation are very nice; the only major issue is that the translation notes are randomly printed on a page halfway through the book. It seems that perhaps one or two extra blank pages could have been added in order to avoid this, which makes it hard to find the notes and a surprise when you do that takes you out of the story.
Manga creation based humor and four-panel stories do not work for everyone, but Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun is still worth giving a try. It balances absurdity with parody and maintains a readable flow and rhythm that keeps the story moving once you get into it. This should especially appeal to fans of Ema Toyama's Manga Dogs, although I think this one is a bit more accessible, and well worth checking out.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ Almost always funny, Tsubaki maintains a good flow and clear, attractive art. Good mix of shoujo and manga creation jokes.
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