It's not often that a 4-panel gag manga makes it into translation. Of course, that might have something to do with the lowbrow reputation of comic
strips, often associated with talking-animal drivel, stilted depictions of suburban life, or webcomics about college dorks who speak in one-liners. Tori Koro is none of these, but achieves the same blandness through another overworked genre: silly high school girls. With that subject matter and a 4-panel format, it draws instant comparison to the more popular Azumanga Daioh. Unfortunately, in order to follow in Kiyohiko Azuma's footsteps, you need to at least match the level of Kiyohiko Azuma's humor—and Tori Koro just doesn't come close.
The problems start at once with the first few
strips, which show the new girls moving in, but accomplishing nothing funny. The punchlines take a stab at humor, usually being exaggerated or nonsensical, but lack the edge that would make them witty. After that, the story quickly settles into standard sitcom formula. It's a very hit-and-miss affair, with punchline after attempted punchline, ranging from bizarre responses that barely make sense, to clever comebacks that are worth a light chuckle. The comedy works best when everyone gets equal time to shine (or screw up), like a shogi tournament to decide the "daughter hierarchy" in the house, or a drawing contest sparked by Tatami's badly drawn town map. Most of the other situations, however, are far less wacky, resulting in mundane scenarios that don't entertain at all.
As individual characters, the girls of Tori Koro actually aren't too bad—each has a distinct personality, and it's really just the poor writing that wastes this potential. Standard manga stereotypes come into play—Yae's small size makes everyone treat her like a kid; Makishi does well at school but can't cook; Tatami is enthusiastic but not too bright; Keiko is perhaps a little too fixated on Yae—but in the hands of a better manga-ka, these contrasting personalities could have played well off of each other. Unfortunately, the dry dialogue shuts out these traits and makes everyone sound the same, so that their personalities only come out when it's time to make a joke. By then, it's too late, and the joke just fizzles out.
The tightly constrained format of 4-panel comics calls for a simple art style, and the sharp-lined character designs fit the bill. Despite the generic big-eyed bishoujo look, it's surprisingly easy to tell the characters apart with their diverse hairstyles. Beyond that, there isn't much variety, but it's understandable—most of the
strips revolve around "talking head" dialogue scenes, with little room for backgrounds or unusual angles. Every now and then, however, a fresh artistic subject does make its way into the story, including dogs, pigeons, and (well, who didn't see this one coming) swimsuits. The panels get overcrowded at times, as if a full-scale manga layout were trying to squeeze itself into this format, but overall the style is simple and pleasing to the eye.
Although the translated dialogue in both volumes is clear and conversational in tone, it's also very dry, and not in a witty or deadpan way. A few embellishments and figures of speech would have helped make the dialogue more colorful and entertaining; there are better ways to capture a character's mood than fretting over accuracy. Sound effects are left in the original Japanese, with small (and sometimes barely noticeable) translations next to each one. Cultural footnotes help to explain some of the jokes, especially regional gags about Tatami and Makishi, who hail from Hiroshima and Osaka respectively.
Despite glossy color pages at the start of each volume, the inside black-and-white pages are inconsistent when it comes to print quality. Volume 1 comes out reasonably sharp, but Volume 2 is just a mess of blurs and poor contrast adjustment. You don't have to stare very hard to see the pixelation from when they scanned in the pages. Volume 2's paper stock is also thinner than the first; could there have been some kind of budget crisis in between volumes? Print quality shouldn't be sacrificed just for the sake of glossy inserts.
It's a shame that Tori Koro fails to rise above the level of other bland, unfunny comic
strips. In the hands of the right artist, with a good sense of humor, almost any ensemble comedy can work, especially with a cast of appealing characters like this one. Instead, Tori Koro flails about with dull punchlines and stiff dialogue, pretending to be funny instead of actually being funny. In manga, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the everyday lives of high school girls. This isn't one of them.