Adolescence is a time of contradictory emotions, of simultaneously pushing away from the world around you and longing to be loved. This tension between rebelliousness and loneliness is often at the emotional core of shoujo manga, and the first volume of Viz's newest Shojo Beat series, Jiu Jiu, really nails it.
The push-pull is expressed most clearly by the heroine, Takamichi, who is the heir of a family of demon hunters. Like many shoujo heroines, she has a tendency toward melancholy; on the very first page, we see her meditating on the pointlessness of life. Her twin brother comforts her. Then he gets killed.
Creator Touya Tobina really piles the troubles on Takamichi. Because she is a girl, her father says she should never have been born; apparently girls are not supposed to be dark hunters. Her father is distant, and the servants can't control her. And then her father gives her two orphaned wolf cubs to care for. Takamichi treats them gruffly, but you can see the bond. Fast forward to three years later, when Takamichi is 16 and knocking off demons on her way to high school. The cubs are half-grown and can switch back and forth between animal and human forms. Their human form is hot, skinny teenage boys, but they never quite lose their animal qualities, although they are more like frisky Labrador retrievers than wolves. They sleep with Takamichi (which is likely to raise an eyebrow or two), but initially the situation is played purely for laughs, and when they follow her on a demon hunt, they end up crashing into each other and knocking each other out.
The two wolves, Snow and Night, have an endearing goofiness to them. Of course the yin-yang thing comes into play: Snow is blond, innocent, and cheery, Night is dark, quieter, and more thoughtful. He also wears glasses in his human form, which is actually a minor plot point, and he does that manga thing of adjusting his glasses all the time. Experienced manga readers know what that means: Smart guy with a superior attitude.
Jiu Jiu walks a tightrope between comedy and tragedy. When Snow and Night enroll in Takamichi's high school, the jokes practically write themselves. Their presence causes a new interest in Takamichi among the girls, but Snow and White can't help acting like dogs, and a Frisbee is an object of intense desire. At the same time, Takamichi is constantly questioning her relationship to them, and when she flashes back to the early days when she first got them, the emotions get cranked up to 11: Two excruciatingly cute puppies, yearning for love, and the girl who wants to reject them.
With this basic triangle set up, the story starts to move a bit. Takamichi finds the diary Night has kept since he was a puppy and sees herself through the wolves' eyes. This shifts their relationship, and there is another, less visible change going on as well: As the wolves mature, they become more dangerous to Takamichi. The advent of the full moon shifts the emotion to a high key, and the story takes a dramatic turn. In the end, the creator steps back a bit from the precipice she has put the characters on—in manga, unlike life, you can go back to the way things are—but that leaves the door open for more drama in the volumes to come.
Jiu Jiu is not for the novice shoujo manga reader. Takamichi's inner monologue is often overlaid on the same page with one or two other conversations, while some sort of action is going on as well, so it's complicated to read. Tobina does some wonderfully creative things with panels, using narrow shapes and sequences of two or three small panels mixed with larger ones to convey the action in different ways, but she also puts a lot of action on every page and she uses a lot of screentone as well.
In Japan, Jiu Jiu runs in the magazine Hana to Yume, which was also the home of Fruits Basket, and there are some similarities in style and theme. This is probably not due to any deliberate intention but simply because the two are part of the same genre, shoujo romance, and they use the tools and tropes of that genre very well. It's a little darker and more complex than most of the new shoujo stories that have come out I the past few years, and it almost feels old-fashioned that way. With its mix of humor and drama, and the way it cuts right to the emotional core of the characters, the first volume of Jiu Jiu is a compelling read and a real treat for shoujo romance fans.