A review of Touhou Suzunaan ~ Forbidden Scrollery (Vol. 1-7, complete)

The cover of Vol. 1, featuring new character Kosuzu Motoori

Each morning, Kosuzu Motoori opens her parents’ bookstore for business and waits on their customers. Suzunaan carries all sorts of books for rent and sale, both natively written and from the mysterious world outside of Gensokyo, its human village, and the surrounding wilderness. Some of these books aren’t even written by humans, and a select few contain potentially dangerous magical powers. Not that Kosuzu minds — as a true book-lover with the special ability to translate any text no matter the language, she’s happy to get her hands on anything interesting, rare, or valuable. And if it contains some sort of arcane power, so much the better.

Kosuzu is at the center of Touhou Suzunaan ~ Forbidden Scrollery, a manga based on the Touhou Project game series as the title suggests.* Written by series creator and game designer/composer ZUN himself and illustrated by Moe Harukawa (since ZUN famously can’t draw all that well) Forbidden Scrollery was serialized in Comp Ace from 2012 to 2017, producing 53 chapters over its seven standalone volumes. Forbidden Scrollery is only one in a series of Touhou-based manga, but as far as I know, it’s the only one that’s gotten an official translation and release in physical form.

I don’t bring Touhou up as often as some series here, but it is one I’ve been a fan of for a long time and that I still follow a bit. It’s had amazing staying power over the years, starting in the 90s as an indie shmup game series on the PC-98 made by one guy drinking beer in a basement. 25 years later, Touhou has produced dozens of both official and fan games and thousands of other fan or doujin works. I’ve already obsessed over the music a few times, considered by many, including me, to be the biggest draw of the series given just how good a composer ZUN is.

By contrast, I used to not consider the writing one of the series’ strengths. Touhou features dozens, maybe now over one hundred, characters, almost all girls who have magical laser/bullet-shooting powers displayed in the games that are central to the series. But the games don’t have much in the way of story to them. Most of them just seem to focus on series main characters Reimu Hakurei the shrine maiden and Marisa Kirisame the witch, both magically powered laser-firing girls, fighting through a gauntlet of youkai or non-human spirit/nature sort of enemies, or vampires, moon people, gods, or whatever other supernatural types are threatening their home of Gensokyo and the humans who live there.

Vol. 2 featuring central character Reimu Hakurei, the youkai-exterminating shrine maiden, on its cover.

This is where ZUN’s manga come in, fleshing out the small world of Gensokyo and its inhabitants, both human and youkai. Forbidden Scrollery is the first official Touhou manga I’ve read (though not the first unofficial one, not if doujins count) and it contains a lot of what I think makes Touhou so enjoyable from a story and character perspective. While the games are naturally full of action and fighting and present stories more or less about magical conflicts, Forbidden Scrollery is mostly a more relaxed slice-of-life tale centered on Kosuzu’s life at Suzunaan and her interactions with her customers and friends, most notably Reimu and Marisa and several non-human visitors who disguise themselves as humans to rent out books, make conversation, and occasionally to try to get their newspaper stocked (and fans already know that means Aya will show up.)

Before getting any deeper into the substance of the manga, it’s important to at least outline the setting of the Touhou series, since it’s where Forbidden Scrollery takes place and is central to the story itself. Gensokyo (literally “Fantasy Land” or more poetically “Land of Illusions”) is a small section of rural Japan home to a population of both humans and youkai, a varied set of non-human natural spirits and beings, who in the 19th century waged a series of wars with each other for control. After the powerful youkai started breaking out into neighboring lands, their home was cordoned off into its own dimension in 1884 by a magical and extremely powerful barrier meant to keep said youkai in.

As another result of the border’s creation, the human population was now trapped in this small dimension with their youkai enemies. Yet they still have a hidden advantage: because the youkai are born from and powered by human fears, they need the humans to exist. Partly for that reason, youkai generally do not threaten the one human village in Gensokyo, and the various youkai factions (foxes, tanuki, tengu, kappa, etc.) hold each other in check, with the humans as the central element in this balance of power.

Another reason for the youkai reluctance to mess with the humans too much are two of the other central characters in this story and in Touhou overall. Reimu is the shrine maiden and only employee of one of the local Shinto shrines, one that barely sees any human visitors because of its remoteness from the village (and so she’s always hurting for offerings, a running joke in the series.) Her friend and sometimes rival Marisa is a much more carefree girl, a witch who lives in a nearby forest. Both also double as “youkai exterminators”, a job you actually carry out in a lot of the Touhou games.

“Exterminator” might sound like an extreme description, and it really is especially considering that far more often than not, neither of them actually “exterminate” their targets. Even in the games, winning a bullet hell fight with a powerful youkai character doesn’t see you killing them but merely roughing them up, after which they’ll often complain about the rough treatment and make a joke that may or may not translate into English very well. And very often, these characters return in later works, sometimes even showing up at Reimu’s shrine.

Kosuzu Motoori in her bookstore Suzunaan with Reimu Hakurei and Marisa Kirisame as visitors

Official art by Moe Harukawa, a two-page spread from one of the volumes: Kosuzu tends her shop with Reimu and Marisa as guests.

This was one of my favorite aspects of Forbidden Scrollery. Though the story as a whole is still very slice-of-life/comedy, there is an underlying tension throughout having to do with this delicate balance between the human and youkai populations. This might be a little offputting for some readers at first, since most fantasy stories like this, both in manga/anime and in western works I’ve seen, involve a mix of fantasy races that are more or less treated as equals even if they’re at odds with each other.

By contrast, the humans of Gensokyo fear the far more powerful magic-using youkai for good reason — humans can easily be kidnapped or even eaten if they stray too far from the village unless they have their own magical abilities like Reimu and Marisa do (hence why they can survive outside the relative safety of the village.) At the same time, youkai who step out of line might be hunted down and punished or even eliminated, sometimes even by other youkai upset at this breach of protocol and the chaos it might cause.

The powerful disguised tanuki Mamizou Futatsuiwa drinking with a misbehaving newly formed youkai in the human village, about to teach him a rough lesson in youkai-human relations and etiquette.

As the story of Forbidden Scrollery develops, then, it becomes clear that the human-youkai relationship is a lot more complicated than simply “humans and youkai are enemies.” Reimu can come off as a real hardliner against the youkai, and when she learns that Kosuzu collects and obsesses over “youma books”, or books containing magical elements and often written by youkai themselves, she decides to keep a close watch on Suzunaan both for Kosuzu’s sake and for the village’s in general. Her hard line turns out to be more of a practical caution, however — as longtime fans know, Reimu spends a lot of time around youkai and is even on sort of friendly terms with some of them, but she does so partly to keep watch and because she knows how to handle herself. The same goes for Marisa.

Kosuzu, on the other hand, is still unaware of a lot of the dangers surrounding the knowledge she seeks out, and when youkai like Mamizou and Aya are attracted to her bookstore and start building rapport with her, she doesn’t understand quite what she’s getting into. Kosuzu is a great protagonist for the story Forbidden Scrollery tells because she’s such a novice in this way despite her intelligence and curiosity. A lot of this story has to do with her growth into a wiser person.

But the same is true for Reimu. Anyone who thinks Reimu is just a plain old anime girl main character should read this (or probably some of ZUN’s other manga, which I haven’t read yet myself) because there’s plenty both interesting and entertaining about her, not least of which is how she’s really kind of an asshole sometimes. But the kind you like. At least I like her.

Reimu complains to Kosuzu about rival shrine maiden Sanae Kochiya and her underhanded donation-seeking tactics (that Reimu also uses.)

It’s also nice to see so much Marisa in here, though since she’s practically a co-main character with Reimu that’s to be expected. Again, she might come off as a pretty typical “cute witch” sort of character you find in some manga and anime, but her tomboyish style and seemingly (but not actually) reckless approach to danger sets her apart. Together with the few new characters introduced in the manga and a whole load of recurring ones (the human historian Hieda no Akyu, tengu writer Aya Shameimaru, kappa inventor/engineer Nitori Kawashiro, and Reimu’s other other rival, the Buddhist nun/priest Hijiri Byakuren, and this is just a short list) there’s an excellent mix of characters to enjoy in this series. My only real complaint with this cast is that my favorites Patchouli and Alice don’t make an appearance, but then I guess they probably figure much more prominently into one or more of ZUN’s other manga.

But I don’t have any real complaints about Forbidden Scrollery. It was an enjoyable read with some nice art, a fine escape into another world (quite literally, since Gensokyo technically exists as a separate sort of pocket dimension in our own world in the Touhou universe.) I might even check out some other Touhou manga, though it may have to be less officially translated since I don’t think any of ZUN’s other manga works have been licensed. And to those readers who don’t know a damn thing about Touhou: I’d recommend picking this series up too. It works as a pretty decent introduction to the series and its world, especially if you don’t feel like jumping into the real deep end with Mountain of Faith or one of the other hellishly difficult bullet hell games that Touhou was built on. Though of course I recommend those too if you have the nerves for them.

 

* I can’t go without endnotes anymore, so here’s one about the title. Every official Touhou work as far as I’ve seen, whether it’s a game or manga, has a title formatted partly in Japanese, always Touhou [something], then the other part in English. This manga is sold in the West with the partial English title Forbidden Scrollery, which doesn’t make it all that easy to actually associate with Touhou unless you’re already familiar with ZUN as the author or the characters on the cover of each volume.

The Touhou part of the title rarely if ever seems to be translated anyway — if you’re interested, Touhou means “eastern” and Suzunaan translates into “Bell Hermitage”, though that’s really just the name of the bookstore in the manga and would probably cause some confusion if it were actually translated and put on the cover.

A review of Ganbare Douki-chan (Vol. 1-4)

Anyone who’s into the less safe-for-work side of art on Twitter might be familiar with Yomu. This artist has made a name for himself creating work that’s sometimes very close to the edge of being 18+ but technically doesn’t cross it. That’s to say, a lot of his art really isn’t SFW in the literal sense. (And the standard disclaimer: this is more or less adult stuff this time around so fair warning as usual.)

Yomu certainly deserves the praise he gets for all his skill, but part of his appeal probably comes from the fact that he makes no secret of what he’s into, which is a quality many people respect. If you’ve seen Miru Tights, this is pretty obvious — this is the same artist behind that series. And the same is true of his other work Ganbare Douki-chan.

I’m really not sure what category to put this one into. I chose to file this post under “manga”, but Ganbare Douki-chan is not exactly a manga; it’s really more of a series of full-page and full-color drawings with a bit of descriptive text or dialogue sometimes included punctuated by a few comic strips. It’s more like an artbook series in that sense. But unlike the other artbooks I own, these aren’t just individual pieces of art: they feature established characters and tell a running story. So Douki-chan is a strange bird, but that’s part of why I wanted to write about it.

Ganbare Douki-chan (something like Do Your Best, Co-Worker, or maybe Doing Her Best/Hardworking Co-Worker? I’m still not that great in Japanese) is about the emotional travails of the office worker Douki-chan, seen on the cover above. She doesn’t get a real name — I don’t think anyone in this series does from what I can tell; “Douki” is an equal colleague or in this case a co-hire as opposed to your senior or junior. Douki-chan and her colleagues work at an office doing some kind of office-related work that’s never specified, but that’s not important either, because this series is all about Douki-chan and her rivals vying for the affections of one guy at their office.

Vol. 2: A challenger appears!

This dude is apparently desirable as hell too, because they’re all going after him pretty hard. Unfortunately, Douki-chan isn’t quite as forward as her rivals, and she certainly can’t bring herself to confess her feelings to the guy, but she still somehow ends up getting into nice situations with him that aren’t quite intimate but close enough to spur her on more. On the other hand, she also worries about and imagines her rivals getting into sexual situations with the guy (and she imagines herself doing so as well — Douki-chan has a pretty good imagination.)

For me, a lot of the appeal to Ganbare Douki-chan comes from seeing the title character getting all flustered but then getting those small wins over her flirty co-workers. But then, of course, there’s the appeal of the art itself. Yomu is great at drawing really cute/attractive women. That seems to be about all he does, anyway, which is certainly fine with me.

He also has a few very obvious fixations, namely on women’s legs and tights/pantyhose; that was the focus of Miru Tights, and the same theme shows up a whole lot in Ganbare Douki-chan, so if that’s your thing, you won’t be disappointed. However, he also branches out into other areas: there’s plenty of cleavage, some swimsuits in the fourth volume, and a few approaching-but-not-quite-naked situations throughout, even with implied sex in Douki-chan’s imagination/dreams in a few (again skirting that 18+ line! And a reminder that even though they avoid that 18+ only label on the cover, these volumes aren’t for kids.)

Finally, there’s the appeal of imagining yourself as the guy in this situation. I guess this is part of the point of Douki-chan, anyway, since a lot of the pages are drawn from the point of view of the man being fought over. Of course, as with a lot of fantasies, the situation would probably get a bit ugly if it were to become reality — there’s a reason a lot of offices discourage open co-worker relationships, and the love polygon in this series has to be causing productivity issues.

… and another one. Will there be yet another challenger added in Vol. 4? You can probably guess.

But I don’t read something like Ganbare Douki-chan because I want to think about productivity issues. I have to do that enough at my own office, which isn’t anything like the one featured in these books (otherwise I might actually look forward to going back soon despite what I just wrote above; yes I really can be that shallow sometimes.) The point to me is more to appreciate Yomu’s beautiful art and to hope Douki-chan comes out on top in the end. This isn’t a deep or serious work or anything, and there’s only so much in the way of storytelling I think you can do with this kind of format.

But I like the format Yomu uses here. It strikes a nice balance between showing off his art and telling a very light romantic story with some comedy mixed in. This is naturally one of those “this is for me but might not be for you” works again — that applies with double or even triple strength this time — but if it’s for you, you’ll like it too.

Just a few more points about Douki-chan — these are doujin (self-published) books, so they don’t have ISBNs or barcodes, and they’re not listed in a lot of the places you can typically find manga. I got mine off of eBay, because of course I had to get physical copies, but if you don’t want to go through the trouble I think there are digital copies available around as well. There also isn’t any official translation and very likely never will be — not such a big deal since you can get the gist of the whole thing without even being able to read any of the bits of text and dialogue in it, but there are sites out there that have unofficial translations, and you can find them easily if you know where to look. Finally, each volume is fairly short at about 30-36 pages each, but the quality of the art and the paper size (B5, typical doujin size; larger than a manga tankobon volume) more than make up for their relatively short lengths.

 

A review of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro (Vol. 1-4)

I’ve never written a plain old review of a manga series on the site until now, so this will be a first. Maybe not a last, either. And I figured that since I’ve already written about it as a jumping-off point for a more broadly themed post, I owe Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro1 an actual review. The series is currently up to 70 chapters as of this writing, but this review is only of the first four volumes that have been officially translated and published in English. Because I’m a fucking weirdo who still likes to own print media, and I actually own these four volumes in physical form, volumes that I think are worth a closer look.

Yeah I’m reusing old images, what’s it to you

I covered the basic premise of Nagatoro in that first post, but basically it’s about a nerdy artistic loner student who has a run-in with one Nagatoro2, a sporty, popular girl one year his junior. At first, Nagatoro mercilessly mocks this guy (known only as “Senpai”; aside from this generic title he’s never assigned any other name) for his loner ways and his hobby of drawing self-insert power fantasy comics. And it’s damn rough going the first several chapters. Even the sometimes irritating Uzaki has nothing on Nagatoro, who comes off as a sadistic bully in her first interactions with Senpai.

Senpai’s reactions to Nagatoro’s teasing only strength her resolve to mock him, because at first he just can’t take it, openly breaking out into tears the first two times and then cursing himself for it. And the third time they meet, Nagatoro makes him a very obviously fake offer of a date that he completely falls for, after which she mocks him again.

At this point, one might just encourage our poor Senpai to tell Nagatoro to fuck off. However, around the middle of the first volume, it starts to become clear that both Senpai and Nagatoro are enjoying this game they’re playing with each other in a strange way. Senpai soon notices to his surprise that Nagatoro doesn’t mess with any of the other guys at their school the way she does with him, which suggests that she’s giving him special attention, something even Nagatoro doesn’t seem to consciously realize. And that’s why despite initial appearances, Nagatoro is really a romantic comedy. Yeah, our two main characters like each other, but they’re both too awkward and unsure to express it or even to realize it quite yet.

Of course, this “two very different characters fall in love” sort of story is nothing new. Uzaki-chan has a similar premise, and so did the much older Toradora, and outside the realm of anime and manga it’s also a common setup. And I’ve said before that I’m not really that big on romantic comedies like this. So why the hell do I like Nagatoro?

In that post back in August, I talked about how the relatability of Senpai helped me to form a connection with and empathize with him, and also to better enjoy the work as a whole. I still think that’s true, but I also think the manga’s laser focus on its two main characters and their development is more important. Nagatoro tells a pretty simple story in that sense — it does have other characters who play their parts in Senpai and Nagatoro’s story, namely Nagatoro’s small group of female friends who join in on messing with him.

However, these and the few other characters who show up seem to be there just to contribute to the development of this central relationship between Nagatoro and her senior. At one point in Vol. 4 for example, Senpai spots the girls at a park bench getting approached by a couple of jocky male classmates, one of whom clearly has his sights set directly on Nagatoro. This steams the hell out of Senpai, and to his great credit, rather than passively watch Nagatoro get asked out on a date and NTR’d away from him by this guy, he marches up to the bench almost without thinking and says “let’s go home” to her, all the while nervously wondering what the hell he’s doing. But his plan works, because Nagatoro is only too happy to leave with him, and all her friends take the cue and go along with our nerdy protagonist as well, leaving the two jocks sitting on the park bench embarrassed and probably wondering what the hell just happened.

By this point, the pair have more or less become friends, and we already have plenty of hints piled up that they have mutual feelings for each other, so there doesn’t seem to be any danger of a love triangle popping up (though I could certainly be wrong about that.) But of course, Senpai doesn’t know that. And Nagatoro is equally jealous of her exclusive right to mock Senpai as much as she wants, getting into little fights with her own friends when they start to get too familiar with him.

But it’s not just a budding awkward romance — these two characters through their interactions start to change each other for the better. The effect on Senpai is dramatic; by the end of the last officially translated and published volume he’s already noticeably more confident and outgoing thanks to Nagatoro dragging him out of his comfort zone time and again. Though he’s still an introvert, he’s not using his time in the school’s art room just to escape from reality anymore.

One of the most telling (and entertaining to me) signs of this change appears in Senpai’s series of self-insert fantasy comics he draws during downtime at school. At first, we see that he draws himself as a sword-wielding hero who travels with a beautiful swordswoman, with whom he seems to have some sort of thing going. Even after Nagatoro discovers this comic and thoroughly mocks him for this in the manga’s very first chapter, he keeps drawing it. But it changes, with Nagatoro herself becoming a character in the comic and mocking and prodding him in exactly the same way she does in real life, wedging herself even into Senpai’s escapist fantasy world.

When your secret crush sees your fantasy catgirl fanart of her… but in this case it actually turns out fine, because Nagatoro is excited to have something else to make fun of Senpai for.

There’s also a pretty clear effect on Nagatoro. Throughout the manga, we’re mostly in Senpai’s head hearing his thoughts, so Nagatoro’s own thoughts and feelings sometimes have to be guessed at. But it does seem like initially she just wanted to make fun of Senpai in a mean-spirited way, only discovering later on that she actually likes him. But does she stop mocking him? Absolutely not — she now instead uses her mockery to whip him into shape, to push him into situations where he’ll develop self-confidence since he can’t just run away as he did before. So although she might not realize it herself, Nagatoro’s strange friendship with Senpai seems to have made her a better person as well, with their relationship making them into something like equals. This is especially evident when Senpai finally gets a hit in on Nagatoro every so often and we see her get flustered and somewhat humbled.

It’s for just this reason that the bullying aspect of Nagatoro doesn’t bother me so much. It does start out pretty damn rough, and as I said in my first post dealing with the manga I can’t blame some readers for dropping this one early on because of it. However, the bullying pretty quickly turns into something very different, and it’s pretty easy to see the path these two characters are taking towards both a solid friendship and a romance (way down the road, though, because naturally it’s going to take a long time — that’s just how these series go.) So I’d urge readers to try to stick with Nagatoro if they can. It pays off, at least up to the point I’ve read.

So yeah, I like this manga a lot so far. Senpai and even the sadistic Nagatoro ended up becoming pretty endearing, and I look forward to seeing where they go from here. Both the art and story are done by one person, named only Nanashi (nanashi as in anonymous?) and the art style is nice as well — Nagatoro is especially expressive, which adds a lot to her back-and-forths with Senpai.

As far as the physical volumes themselves go, they’re fine. Though I can’t speak to how good the official translation is since I still barely know Japanese. I assume it’s good, but I’ll leave that for others to judge until I can actually read this language at a competent level. I do have one complaint related to that, though: I wish there were at least a few translation notes, because I think they would have been helpful. For example, a few chapters in, Nagatoro finally bothers to tell Senpai her name (and also refuses to learn his because she says she doesn’t need to know — rough.) Before this, Senpai refers to her as “you” because he doesn’t know her name yet, and Nagatoro replies with “The way you say ‘you’ is creepy.”

This is a weird comment to make, since referring to just about anyone with “you” is completely normal and expected in English. It’s only when you look at the original Japanese and find that Senpai is using the pronoun kimi, which means “you” but seems to be a bit of an either rude or intimate way to refer to someone depending on the context, that Nagatoro’s comment makes sense. I don’t know if it’s possible to directly translate this sort of thing in the conversation itself, since it really doesn’t make sense in English, but I think that’s what translation notes are for.3 This goes especially for a manga like Nagatoro that deals with awkward social situations, where context is important.

There’s more effective tension in this one panel than in the whole of the last season of Game of Thrones, and I am serious about that

Finally, there is some somewhat suggestive material in the manga so far, but it serves to advance the relationship between our two main characters. A lot of it also comes about thanks to Senpai’s overactive imagination, though Nagatoro does encourage him in that with her bullying and teasing. I just don’t get the feeling that it’s gratuitous. There’s actually a very wholesome sort of budding romance under all that when you get into the story. Though there might still be enough such material for another dumb Uzaki-esque moral outrage to flare up when the Nagatoro anime starts airing, but I hope we can avoid that nonsense.

I’m going to keep following these characters — as I said, they’re currently a lot further along in their story than the couple dozen officially translated chapters out now, though you have to look up the original manga if you can read it for that, or else other alternatives that exist around that I probably don’t even have to tell you about. The anime adaptation has also just been announced for the spring season next year, so barring any virus-related delays we’ll be getting that in just a few months. I look forward to seeing how it measures up. đ’€­

 

1 Since I’m already nitpicking in this review, I may as well bring up the fact that some fans don’t seem to like this translation of the manga’s original title, which is Ijiranaide Nagatoro-san. I’ve heard some say “Don’t Bully Me” would be better, but then from what I can tell, the verb ijiru, 弄る, that’s used here does translate as “to toy with” or “to play with” with the implication of messing around with something, so the English title seems fine to me. But again, I’m no expert. Maybe the people complaining are all bullshitting and it’s just another meme or something, I have no idea.

2 She’s referred to by her family name Nagatoro throughout the manga (and by “Hayacchi” by her other friends, which is a clue to her given name.) Referring to people by their family instead of their given name is apparently still another big cultural difference between Japan and the US. I wouldn’t mind being called by my last name, though. I like that idea for some reason.

3 Or maybe I think this because I’m a bad writer who feels the need to shove way too much extraneous information into footnotes.