Nine Puzzle (Manga) Review

Plot: Mika Sawamura is a very cheerful, nice and friendly teenage girl who is popular in school and liked by nearly everyone that she meets. Kaede Mirakami is almost her polar opposite. He doesn’t seem to have any friends, always wears a cold look on his face and never really talks to anyone.

One day, Mika sees Kaede playing billiards in a local shop, and more surprisingly she sees a big bright smile on his face as he plays. Curious, she enters the shop to see why this place seems to cause such a drastic change in Kaede and ends up giving the game a shot herself. She adores it and instantly becomes a regular at the shop, much to Kaede’s dismay. The two take each other on as competitors and eventually friends, but their love of billiards may end up causing them just as much trouble as it does enjoyment.

Breakdown: This manga is a bit of an oddity because I don’t think I’ve ever seen billiards be the main focus or even a slight bit of focus in a manga or anime before. They’ll sometimes include the game in more adult anime and manga, especially those with a more noir vibe, but it’s just not a common set piece in many features. To have it be spotlighted in a show starring 14-year-olds is also pretty unique.

This isn’t really much of a sport/gaming manga. While it does focus a good deal on billiards, they don’t explain much about the game nor are there the typical tropes of gaming/sports manga like tournaments, training, working through a particular problem you have in the game etc. There is a game against a bunch of assholes to show them up and make them leave the shop, but that’s really it.

It’s mostly just about enjoying the game, and I actually find that quite refreshing. Even if Mika sees Kaede as her rival, they’re very much friendly rivals. In fact, by the second volume, they’re pretty good friends. I would actually border into best friend territory a bit.

Mika isn’t that good at billiards, but she does have some specific talents suited for the game such as being able to shoot in very straight lines. Because of this, she’s definitely not Kaede’s equal competitor in the game or anything close to it. She sees him as a challenge in always getting better, much like Kaede sees Yoh, the store owner, as his challenge in always improving.

Mika and Kaede’s dynamic seriously reminded me a lot of Sana and Akito from Kodocha. Their characters do match very well. Sana is a very popular, likeable, optimistic girl who always tries to see good in everyone, like Mika, and Akito, like Kaede, is the rough cold loner who always gets into trouble, but has one thing that he loves and practices all the time (with Akito it’s karate). And over time the female lead slowly gets him to open up and they eventually become good friends and then love interests.

Another parallel is the fact that Kaede has a fairly rough home life. Not as bad as Akito’s, but still. He is mostly ignored at home since his parents focus all of their energies on working or his younger brother, who is much more skilled in academics than Kaede is. His little brother also doesn’t give a crap about him and frequently belittles him as well as anyone who befriends him.

While being an obviously shoujo-style manga focusing on a fairly close duo, they don’t really put any focus on any sort of romantic angle outside of little shots here and there until the very end. This is also something that I very much appreciated because I liked seeing their relationship develop as a friendship without feeling the need to rush into romance.

The story overall isn’t anything epic. It’s somewhat short at two volumes, and nothing really huge or dramatic happens. Dramatic events do happen here and there, but it never tries to border into soap opera territory.

There are plenty of comedic moments and fun cartoony panels to lighten even already light moods. The dramatic events that happen seem very real, barring maybe one instance involving an assault which I just found to be a little too much, and they add to the story very well, highlighting not only how important billiards is to Mika and Kaede but also how much the shop itself means to them.

Speaking of the shop, another character that should get some spotlight is the owner of the shop, a man named Youhei “Yoh” Ueda. Yoh is incredibly good at billiards and taught the very skilled Kaede everything that he knows. Kaede admires Yoh very much, and they have a really great brother-like relationship that jumps off the page. Yoh is a very nice guy who always welcomes Mika and Kaede into his store and helps them out with practice whenever he can.

The art fantastic. I love Mayu Sakai’s ability to draw clothing and hair. Her anatomy skills are also really great, but the faces bother me a bit. I know shoujo style really calls for even bigger eyes than usual, and I’m fine with that, my problem is the faces when drawn from even a slight angle. It looks like the chin just gets shoved towards the character’s throat while forming a weird triangle shape. The eye shapes at angles also don’t look right sometimes.

Bottom Line: This a great and quick read for anyone who appreciates a good friendship/kinda romance story, or for anyone who has a hobby that they really love. You definitely don’t have to be a billiards fan to get into this manga. There’s not a lot of technical jargon to wade through, and even the simplest aspects of the game are explained clearly.

BONUS: Nine Puzzle includes two side stories (Three technically, but the third is canon with the rest of the manga and basically falls under the main review); one called Platinium, another called Strawberry Tears. Both of which don’t include anything about Mika, Kaede, billiards or anything in the main manga.

The first story is about a girl named Kasuga who is a bit quirky and tends to make stuff like jewelry out of everyday objects. She befriends a boy named Miyanaga, a handsome guy and model student that many girls have a crush on. However, they don’t tend to approach him because he wears a ring on his hand that people believe is from his girlfriend. Kasuga starts to fall for Miyanaga, but is conflicted by the fact that he supposedly has a girlfriend. When she learns the true and tragic meaning behind the ring, it changes everything for the both of them, leaving them with an important decision to make.

I liked this story. I would’ve liked a little more on the story behind the ring. They mostly just gave the bare bones of the story to let us get the gist and then teetered off. However, it’s a nice story about healing and moving on from a tragic event and learning to live life fully again. Seems a bit abrupt at the end, but nothing too bad.

The second story is about a girl named Yuu who basically treats guys like toys. All she does is get boys to take her on dates, bats her eyelashes and acts all sweet to get them to buy her stuff that she wants. She’s a gold digger, basically. She’s so cold in her ‘relationships’ that the first time we see her, she’s scamming some poor guy out of 8000 yen, roughly $60, for a choker only to completely blow him off minutes later. She also finds dating itself to be purely for stuff or, in a guys’ perspective, to show off their pretty girlfriends.

She meets up with Houjou, the class representative, as he’s shopping in the same mall as her. He’s looking for a nice birthday present for a girl who is very precious to him, but not yet his girlfriend. He picks out hairclips with little strawberries on them, but Yuu scoffs at the gift saying it’s lame and childish.

Houjou, not knowing what girls like to get, starts crying at her criticism of his gift idea, and, in an effort to keep him from embarrassing her, she offers to find out what his crush would like better and shops with him for a gift.

Understanding Houjou’s genuine love for his crush opens up new windows for Yuu’s perspective on love and dating.

I’m not a huge fan of this story, to be honest. Yuu really comes off like a bitch in many parts, especially in the intro, and they really don’t put any shame on the fact that she’s playing with these poor boys. You could make the argument that it’s their own faults for falling for her feminine wiles and thinking with their human horn, but that doesn’t seem right to me. Is this a ‘don’t hate the player, hate the game’ kind of thing? Because that always seemed dumb to me too.

There are two instances where her actions are brought into a negative light. The first is when she claims Houjou’s crush isn’t as pretty as she expected, thus hairclips would’ve been fine as it’s a lame gift for a lame person. She continues on to say that she’s not really the type of girl that you could really show off in public. Houjou gets angered at this and says that he’s not trying to date her so he can show her off. His statement rattles Yuu’s views on his intentions, which clash with those of the guys she normally dates. Though, to be honest, we never really got a good lock on Yuu’s ‘typical guy’ view. Guys and girls alike think with their hormones a lot, yes, but we never see her in a situation where that’s the only thing on their minds. Even the guy in the beginning, despite falling for her cutesy flaunts, never had a moment where it seemed like he was just in it for the hot chickness.

The second is when she explains what she usually does with her dates, and Houjou says she’s worth more than that, making it seem like the situation is really just that she doesn’t have the self-esteem to get into a real emotional relationship and instead uses boys as playthings to get expensive stuff. I guess that’s fine, but really is no one just going to flat out tell this girl that it’s wrong to manipulate others for your own gain?

The ending is alright, though I would have preferred it to just have Yuu’s experience with Houjou teach her to pursue more meaningful relationships while Houjou ends up with his crush. But I suppose the real ending is just as realistic and a little sweet. It does definitely show character development for Yuu and Houjou, but the whole story doesn’t really sit right with me.

Additional Information and Notes: Nine Puzzle is written and drawn by Mayu Sakai. It was published by Ribon Magazine.

Volumes: 2

Chapters: 11

Year: 2002

Recommended Audience: Some mild violence, a little tragic story in the Nine Puzzle canon side story, but overall nothing that bad. 7+

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