Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Tsuruga insists on driving Dark Moon's final car chase himself, which means pulling some very dangerous stunts on carefully controlled but still public byways. When things go wrong, as they must, black memories come bubbling up. When the weight of the memories very nearly crushes him, it's Kyoko who pulls him back from the brink. Perhaps she is the good luck charm the President promised she'd be. In his emotional tumult Tsuruga misses something very important though. The accident hasn't just affected him; it's affected Kyoko too. Perhaps more deeply than anyone realizes.
The wonder of Skip Beat! is that, even after twenty-eight volumes and some five thousand pages, it can still surprise you, still lock you in and make you beg for the volume to go on for just one more page. It's an achievement built on characters we care about, relationships we're invested in, and a deep and well-earned faith that, whatever Yoshiki Nakamura has brewing, it's something we want to see. It's a faith she rewards throughout this volume and that surely she'll reward in the next, and rather explosively if the end of this one is to be believed. The wait for 29 is going to be a cruel one.
This is a volume for the Tsuruga + Kyoko fans out there. Or just for the Tsuruga fans. Of course that's been true for the last few volumes, but things are clearly coming to a head now. The on-set accident that kicks off this volume sets in motion a whole chain of emotional developments, whose repercussions seem likely to head straight through to the next volume. Most have to do with Tsuruga and his ongoing battle with his past, which has consumed the bulk of the Violence Mission chapters but only here delves concretely into what it is that sent young Tsuruga fleeing to Japan all those years ago. It's revealing stuff, adding still another dimension to a character who was already one of shojo manga's best male leads. It's a dimension we've always known was there—it's Nakamura's sly genius that her revelations always seem to have been planned since page one—but that is still nice to see fully revealed. Or nearly fully. Ever loath to reveal her whole hand, Nakamura keeps more than a few cards to herself.
While most of the developments take place in Tsuruga's head, the most interesting ones take place between Tsuruga and Kyoko. A traffic accident may not be the most original way to throw light on how important the two have become for each other, but it works damn well. Kyoko's reaction to the news is quite telling, and when she pulls Tsuruga from the darkness it is crystal clear what an overwhelming influence she has become in his life. Their scenes afterwards are a joy, exactly the kind of half funny/half touching interplay that has been the pair's hallmark since all the way back in the substitute manager chapters, but with a closeness that has been creeping up on them for volumes now.
And then Nakamura drops the big whammy. Right there, out of nowhere, in the last chapter. Though actually it isn't out of nowhere. In fact, she's been building to it all along. But like a good magician, Nakamura has been dazzling us with one hand while doing the dirty work with the other. All the while we've been preoccupied with Tsuruga's past, following the emergence of his inner darkness and wondering how Kyoko will help save him from it, when the really important stuff was happening to Kyoko. When the point of that last chapter hits, it casts much of the previous few volumes in a whole new light. Little scenes between Tsuruga and Kyoko take on big significance while big scenes shrink a little in comparison. It's a classic Skip Beat! moment: the exact right move at the exact right moment, and yet somehow we didn't see it coming.
There was a time when Nakamura's art could be called a weakness, but it's long past now. There's a little stiffness in some of her action panels—most noticeably when Kyoko's running to the scene of the accident—and she goes way over the top with the expressionistic imagery during Tsuruga's battle with his inner darkness, but those are niggling complaints. Her comedic instincts are as good as ever, her steadily improving male designs evident in the softer, more human lines of Tsuruga's face, and her emotional acuity nearing the realm of perfection. She doesn't need background effects, inner monologues, or lengthy discussions to get her characters' feelings across: they are there for all to see, radiating from their eyes and bleeding from their body language. Tsuruga naturally comes across well this volume, especially when breaking out one of his rare and luminous smiles, but Kyoko really steals her scenes—especially early on, when Nakamura makes canny use of her sleek “Natsu” design.
If there's one complaint to be had, it's that Kyoko doesn't get to show off her cool side. Focusing on her softer emotions is fine, especially given her role in this volume, but Kyoko is best when being Kyoko: intense, career-focused, and more than a little insane. Not to worry. Nakamura's supernatural ability to go where she should when she should practically guarantees that Kyoko will be unleashing her demons and kicking acting ass in no time. But first there are some big personal issues to hammer out—and it'll be a pleasure seeing what shape they eventually take.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ Delves deeper than ever into the dark corners of Tsuruga's psyche; takes a turn towards the end that adds new significance to the last few volumes and leaves you salivating for the next.
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