A Partial Review
(Warning: Spoilers are marked in brackets like this [spoiler.]. Highlight the text between the brackets to read spoilers.)
So, I read v. 1-7 of Something's Wrong With Us (Watashitachi wa Douka shiteiru) by Natsumi Ando, and before I gush about the series and dive into my part 1 review, I need to preface a few things. First, I love the mystery genre, and when I say I love mystery, I mean: I LOVE MYSTERY. All kinds of mysteries from hard-boiled/noir dramas to police procedurals to cozy mysteries to everything else in between. I enjoy the entire mystery genre, and when it comes to the U.S. manga market, I'm not getting my fill. Case in point:
Compared to some of the other genres I enjoy like romance, comedy, and fantasy, the amount of licensed mystery titles just lags leagues behind. I feel there's such a lack of variety. When it comes to mystery manga in the U.S. market, there's way too much emphasis on action thrillers, blood & gore, and psychological dramas. If you wanted to read mystery manga and just asked the internet at large for recs, you'll get a chorus of works by Naoki Urasawa, some loose manga like Death Note, Tokyo Ghoul, Banana Fish, or Bungo Stray Dogs, and maaaaybe someone will toss out Kei Sanbe (Erased, Island in a Puddle, For the Kid I Saw in My Dreams) or something by Clamp (ex: Legal Drug, Drug & Drop, xxxHolic), but Naoki Urasawa and his works are the first things most people think of. Naoki Urasawa is to mystery like Junji Ito is to horror. No shade to either mangaka.
Don't get it twisted.
I enjoy Naoki Urasawa's works. I love the cat-and-mouse thriller Monster and the Columbo-esque procedural Master Keaton. The sci-fi techno-thriller Pluto was a great read too. Sadly, I can't say the same about 20th Century Boys. That series just didn't stick for me, but perhaps, I'd enjoy reading his more recent works like Mujirushi and Asadora!. In brief, Naoki Urasawa is a great mystery/thriller mangaka, but he's only one guy, and he has a style and writes a certain way. He's not the only mangaka that writes mysteries, and his works aren't the only mystery series in the manga landscape much like how Junji Ito and his works aren't the end-all, be-all to the horror manga landscape. So what exactly are Urasawa's works missing?
Hot guys, pretty boys, soaps, romance (both good and the bad romance that Lady Gaga sings about), jewelry, and sparkles to name a few. There's more to mystery than blood and gore, an international manhunt, or finding a dead body, and there's more to mystery than what the shounen and seinen demos have to offer. I'm happy to report that more shoujo/josei mystery is on the way! (Usotoki Rhetoric by Ritsu Miyako will be coming out soon, and Do Not Say Mystery by Yumi Tamura will be out next year.) Hopefully, the trend will continue.
Natsumi Ando is a mangaka that mystery lovers, especially shoujo and josei mystery romance lovers, should become acquainted with. If her name sounds familiar to you, perhaps it's because of her earlier works Kitchen Princess (written by Miyuki Kobayashi) and Arisa. Ando was the illustrator for Kitchen Princess, which is a cute story about finding one's "prince" through cooking (and not a mystery). The story is intended for a younger audience. On the other hand, Arisa is suitable for an older audience, say the late middle-school crowd and up. To summarize:
Set in present-day Japan, [Arisa] focuses on teenager Tsubasa Uehara, as she investigates the mystery surrounding her twin sister's suicide attempt. With her sister left comatose, Tsubasa poses as her in the hopes of uncovering the identity of the King, a person who grants wishes to Arisa's class, often resulting in violence.
While the mystery was intriguing, I didn't like some parts of the execution. (If you're not a fan of the absent adults trope and the school reps having a lot of power trope, you'll struggle with Arisa.) Also, Arisa is a "rare" story that doesn't focus on romance. The plot revolves around sisterhood and solving the mystery. I enjoyed this story, which I didn't read as a youngling but rather as an adult, but I love Ando's follow-up Something's Wrong With Us more. Unsurprisingly.
Something's Wrong With Us
Something's Wrong With Us (Watashitachi wa Douka shiteiru) is a mystery romance drama about a woman named Nao Okura seeking revenge on a man named Tsubaki Takatsuki who framed her mother for murder when they were children. The story takes place in a traditional and prestigious Japanese sweets/candy shop in modern-day Japan. The series was serialized in Kodansha's Be Love magazine between 2016-2021, and the series is complete in Japan at 16 volumes. Ando has written a few side stories which have been compiled in a 17th volume. There may be more side stories, but the main story has been completed. In 2020, the manga was adapted into a live-action TV show starring Minami Hamabe and Ryusei Yokohama in the lead roles. Presently, Kodansha USA has released 9/16 volumes. Barring no delays, volume 10 will be released in August.
Diving into the story, Something's Wrong With Us is a "steamy," slow-burn romance between childhood friends who become enemies before becoming lovers. Starting from volume 1 and page 1, we're introduced to the big mystery: who killed the owner of Kogetsuan 15 years ago and why? The owner was Tsubaki's father, and he was a talented confectioner in charge of a full staff of live-in employees, which includes Nao's mom. Tsubaki claims Nao's mom killed his dad, and that decision has sent Nao's life into a tailspin. Since her mother was arrested and died during the trial, Nao lived in the orphanage until she became an adult.
At 21, she's working as a confectioner at a wagashi shop when her employer receives a mysterious email about her past and was promptly fired for it. Soon after she meets a mysterious man who gives her a letter from her mom. The letter simply says, "It wasn't me." Spurred on by this letter, Nao decides to face her past head-on. She hides her identity and successfully integrates herself into the Takatsuki household and Kogetsuan as a confectioner and bride-to-be to heir apparent Tsubaki.
From volume 1 onwards, the plot thickens. Each volume tacks on more to the main mystery—who killed the proprietor Tusbaki's dad 15 years ago and why—as well as more complications for the budding romance between Nao and Tsubaki and their relationships with the supporting cast of characters. We soon learn that Nao isn't the only character that has an ax to grind with the Takatsuki household and Kogetsuan, meaning the number of antagonists increases. Tsubaki's shrewd mother Kyoko and curmudgeonly grandfather Sojuro are the main antagonists. We also learn the backstories of Tsubaki and the other characters. Like Nao, Tsubaki suffered from that day 15 years ago. All of these revelations come to a head in volume 7, which is the mid-series climax. Volume 1-7 is "part 1" of the series. Volume 8 starts "part 2" and jumps ahead 3 years later when everything changes. Nao is no longer hiding her identity nor is she Tsubaki's bride-to-be. She takes her revenge on Tsubaki from outside Kogetsuan via her own shop.
Now, before you throw hands and cry, "Spoiler!," trust me. There's so much going on that I haven't spoiled anything. Something's Wrong With Us is a messy tangled web of lies, truths, and tragedies. I barely scratched the surface of all that takes place in volumes 1-7. This story heavily favors the plot over romance, and that may be off-putting to some readers. If you lean heavily on romance, you may not enjoy this story. There are intimate moments and time spent developing Tsubaki and Nao's relationship, but it might not be satisfying to someone who primarily reads romance stories for the romance if that makes sense. Furthermore, this is more of a psychological thriller than an action story so you'll have to be patient with it, pacing-wise. Expect lots of scheming, internal thought processing, psychological warfare, and stuff like that.
Now, let's talk about characters. Character-wise, Nao is a likable, average, hardworking protagonist who is just trying to overcome her traumatic past. She's not a helpless heroine. She's a great confectioner but a lousy detective. You feel for her and want to root for her as the story goes on. Tsubaki is likable too. However, he's a single-minded and possessive hard worker who craves his grandfather's approval and his birthright, the Kogetsuan shop. He's ambitious and just as tied (and held back) by the Takatsuki family and Kogetsuan as Nao is. Like Nao, Tsubaki is a talented confectioner.
Artistically speaking, Something's Wrong With Us is gorgeous. There are a lot of pretty full-page and double spreads with Tsubaki and Nao together. Additionally, the artwork is realistic. The wagashi is very detailed and looks delicious. Important to note—the wagashi provides a unique backdrop to the story. Each volume has notes in the back about the type of wagashi shown as well as other cultural notes. Food and drink are elements of the story but not the focus like it is in the slice-of-life mystery drama The Drops of God. Furthermore, the clothes and backgrounds are detailed. The characters wear kimonos most of the time, and the kimono, the traditional Japanese house and shop, and the small town setting lend a classic, timeless feel to the story. There are little to no cellphones, computers, and other technology, oddly enough. This story could have easily taken place in the late 1800s/early 1900s instead of the mid to late 2010s.
Finally, let's talk about content warnings. In addition to the occasional violence, blood, and attempted murder, you can expect [unexpected pregnancy, loss of pregnancy], childhood trauma, child neglect/abuse, infidelity, lying, and manipulation. Kodansha USA rated the story as "OT" for Older Teen and recommends the book for ages 16+. Please note that this is a mature story.
Wrapping up, I'd recommend this manga to people who enjoy mystery romance stories, adult contemporary stories, and/or people who enjoy Arisa. I love mystery/romance stories, and I enjoyed reading Arisa so I'm on cloud 9. Something's Wrong With Us is one of my favorite recent manga series, and while a little premature, I've put it in my top 9 all-time favorite manga list. I look forward to each volume. In addition to Arisa and Something's Wrong With Us, you can check out Natsumi Ando's other stories, particularly Zodiac P.I., a light-hearted mystery romance. (It's out-of-print but fairly easy to find below the cover price in the second-hand market.) If you like a lot of tea with your mystery and you're looking for a read-alike to Something's Wrong With Us, I'd recommend Guilty by Ai Okaue. Finally, if you're looking for another psychological revenge mystery, I'd recommend Burn The House Down by Moyashi Fujisawa.