Takaya-sensei continues to hold me in thrall, no matter how cynical I try to be. Here I should confess that I'm not terribly good at "cynical" actually.... just one big bleeding heart, that's me. But I am allergic to emotional manipulation, and she does resort to it sometimes. But mostly, she earns her heart-warming scenes and lines honestly, as genuine payback from the characters' worries and traumas.
The playful little intro to every volume, with Tohru cheerfully telling about the Sohma curse in a way that implies it's all fun and games, is beginning to grate as the story gets darker and darker. We learn more about what it's like to be a teenaged Sohma in love - and it ain't pretty. The situation of the adult Zodiac members is just as bad, even though they can control themselves better, and we witness some more of that as well, including more details about Hatori's tragic romance of several years ago. More revelations about horrible Sohma parents are balanced with increasing tenderness of all sorts among the characters as the Sohmas and Tohru and her friends get ready for and start their summer vacation. Volume 9 also includes Hanajima's backstory and a funny little extra about the teens waiting out a rainstorm and whiling away the time by telling spooky stories.
I love Hatsuharu more and more. His berserk incident at school, driven by his battered but not broken heart; his unflagging passion for Rin; his ability to care about others even in the midst of his own troubles; his thousand-mile stare when he's in space-cadet mode: it's all endlessly endearing to me. I loved his gentle sarcasm when Yuki manages to make himself visit the main house to check on his cousin: "A person just walked in who looks exactly like Yuki. A mystery ... ." And then there's his deadpan telling of the "spooky" (actually, rather disgusting) tale in the little sidebar story, and his calm appreciation of Tohru in her swimsuit.
Ayame is turning out to have far more depth than one would imagine. His ceaseless courting of his younger brother - bringing him treats, offering to take their parents' place at Yuki's parent-teacher conference, confessing his regret at his youthful avoidance of any fraternal responsibility - is increasingly poignant, and the little vignette from his memory where Mine asks him "Are you sad?" and he replies, resting his forehead on her shoulder, "I'm not sad. I'm downright pathetic," really touched me. I was glad to see Yuki beginning to relent as he comes to realize that there's a warm, generous soul under all the flamboyant silliness and attitude.
I have to say that a little of Ritchan goes a long way, and I was tired of him long before his scenes were over. However, he did provide one of my favorite silly bits. When Shigure is applying a little tough love and asks him whether he wants to be a better man someday, Ritchan gushes "Of course! Someday ... I hope that I can overflow with confidence like Aya-niisan!" - and in his vision, we see Ayame dashingly chowing down on a bowl of noodles, flourishing his chopsticks and laughing like the hero of a Regency romance - "Ha ha ha!" - as a boxed caption warns the audience that "Ayame eats his soba with deep confidence ... Eat it normally!" It's just so wonderfully random (and I may have to see whether I can cram it onto an icon somehow, although the linework is awfully fine).
I'm impressed by Takaya's sensitive handling of teenaged boys' emotions, especially in Kyo's case. There are several scenes where his reactions are really beautifully depicted more than you'd expect from this style of drawing. I think it's in the way she draws body language as much as the faces. I'm particularly thinking, first, of the beginning of the late-night soumen-eating scene, where Tohru, struggling with her own emotions, starts tugging on Kyo's talismanic bead bracelet to emphasize what she's saying about his bottling up his emotions, and how his protests suddenly give way to understanding of her point, and second, of the scene in Kazuma's kitchen, where Kyo's standing behind her as she looks at the stain on the wall that used to scare him when he was small, and he suddenly realizes that he's now tall enough to look down at the top of her head - and is so overwhelmed with tenderness that he has to cuff her on the head and tell her to get back to work, to hide what he's feeling.
Which brings us to my man Shigure. There's a lot of him in this section. The soumen scene, where he wisely counsels Tohru about handling her problems as they come, and not "borrowing trouble" from the future - and then promptly reverts to his public self, teasing Kyo about eating pink soumen ("If you eat pink soumen, you'll be come a pervert!") - is one of my favorites, and makes me think, once more, of Sanada Yukimura from SDK. But then there's the troubling sequence with Mayu: I think he really did at first mean it to be a pleasant way to pass the time for both of them, and then he really was trying to make things possible for Hatori - if the curse can ever be broken. But the whole manipulative business is worrisome - and speaking of manipulation, I think that's what's going on with this first scene between him and Rin: Takaya means us to assume the worst.
Still, my feeling about Shigure and his messing about is pretty well summed up by his interactions with Hatori toward the end of vol. 10. When Akito's party arrives at the beach house, Hatori is very angry over Shigure's actions with Mayu - and his anatomically precise threat, from such a calm person who happens to be a doctor, is particularly weighty. He also says "If you push too hard, you'll break things," and Shigure replies, with a bitter smile, "Break? For us, there's nothing left to break, is there?" But later Hatori, seemingly out of desperation, encourages him: "I don't know what you're up to, Shigure ... but if there's a chance it will change things, any method is preferable to doing nothing ... like me." The thing is, Shigure is still struggling to change things, while Hatori seems locked in the dreary stasis of depression and Ayame is just slithering out from under any unpleasantness and marking time by burying himself in his creative endeavors. It's easy to disapprove of Shigure's methods, but I have to admire his desperate optimism - he's hoping against hope that somehow, he can help position the pieces on the board so that victory will emerge from this mess - for all 13 of them.
Which of course, would mean defeat for Akito. She (and I keep being convinced it's "she") increasingly reminds me of Colin, the little boy in The Secret Garden, if he'd been allowed to grow up utterly unchecked: it's that combination of neurotic minor illness and spoilt childish tyranny. And God, do I feel sorry for her living teddy bear, Kureno!