Natsuki Takaya is the manga-ka who created the hit series "Fruits Basket", which remains one of my favorite manga ever. Now, she has published a series of short romantic stories that are mostly not tied to any of her previous works, except for the one at the end, and it is a side work to her series "Tsubasa: Those with Wings".
"Songs to Make You Smile" tells the story of Takahashi, a boy who is the front man for a band, and who also writes all their songs. He and his band are scheduled to play at the school festival, but those who know him think it is unusual for him to be the lead singer of the band, mainly because he's shy and quiet and most of the time seems to have a rather mean expression on his face. But inside, Takahashi is merely thoughtful, and he has feelings for Anzu Nakata, the cousin of one of his bandmates. He met her when they were in middle school and he loved her for her joyful smile. But when he met her again in High School, he found her quiet, sad and reserved because the other girls were teasing her to the point of abuse. But how far will Takahashi go to make her smile again? And will Anzu return his feelings for her?
"Ding Dong" tells the story of Chisato, a girl who has recently lost her father and is struggling through life with her stepmother. She lost her mother when she was young, and was raised by her father, who was cold and distant to her. Now that he is gone, she wonders why her father never seemed to love her, and she struggles with the idea that she is unworthy of the love of others, and how her father could love her stepmother and show her the emotions he never showed to his own daughter. But it takes the words of Takahiro, a boy she is developing feelings for, to show her that sometimes love doesn't leave evidence behind. Can Chisato find the evidence that her father loved her, and admit her feelings for others?
"Voice of Mine" is the tale of Shu Inugaki, the musical violin prodigy son of two very prominent and talented musicians. He is so gifted that even though he is a first year student, many other students assume that the only reason why he wins competitions and awards is because of the influence of his parents, their money and their names. But when he meets Futaba, a female viola player with problems of her own, he can tell that, she isn't copying anyone else's style, she plays in her own. But like Shu, her classmates accuse her of having no talent and copying their style to get ahead. Can the two of them reinforce each other to stop listening to their detractors and be happy with what they already have?
"Double Flower" tells the tale of Tachibana, a boy whose love and talent lie with needle-crafts, so much so that he's left school to start working at them, supplying a small store in the city. But when his niece Aya comes to stay with him after a falling-out with her parents, she questions his masculinity for loving sewing and his choice of careers. But when even she starts to realize the depths of his talent and dedication, can she help him admit his feelings for the daughter of the shopkeepers he works for? Or will Aya end up wanting him for herself?
And in the backup story, Princess Dark Black, the Princess of the title is beautiful, but her attitude doesn't endear her to the people she lives with or rules. When her stepmother and father get fed up with her attitude, they decide to have her killed in the forest, only for the Princess to overcome the hunter and decide to go on an adventure to find a handsome Prince to take her away and marry her. When she ends up at the house of a Dwarf instead, she decides to stay with her, making the Dwarf work hard to support her and her endless demands. But when she eats a poisoned apple, will the Prince that shows up want her or the hard-working but Pretty Dwarf who has labored hard to support her? And can this fractured fairy tale have a happy ending? or will Princess Dark Black remain as she is forever?
I loved this manga, as the stories have the same sort of charm that Fruits Basket did, with a sort of gentle charm that shows that love doesn't just go to the beautiful and popular people, and that romance is rarely as straightforward as we wish it to be. There are also many of the same themes that showed up in Fruits Basket, like abusive teasing, people considered unmasculine for their hobbies, and that romance is rarely just confessing to someone that you like them and having them return that affection. Sometimes you have to work for it, and there is also a strong thread of discovering your strengths and talents before being able to connect with someone on a genuine emotional level.
Out of all the stories in this volume, my favorite was "Voice of Mine", as it really resonated with me that sometimes, you can't listen to the echo chamber of other people telling you that you suck, because they aren't telling you how you really feel out of misplaced jealousy or aggression. But it was a hard choice to narrow it down to just one favorite story because all of them are so good. The only one that felt out of place was Princess Dark Black because it was less a romance story and more a comedy story, so it felt very out of place and different from the others. But it's nice to know that Natsuki Takaya can do comedy as well as gentle, beautiful romance.
I loved this manga, and I think that anyone who sighed over Fruits Basket and enjoyed the story will most definitely enjoy this volume as well. Each of the stories is different, but many evoke the same beautiful, nostalgic feeling of first love and teenage emotions. I highly recommend this volume, and I am actually going to seek it out for myself to add to my collection. Sweet and beautiful.