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High school kendo instructor Toraji "Kojiro" Ishida (English name order is used) is perennially out of money, and he's also threatened with the loss of his job because his team never seems to get anywhere. When his former kendo upper-classmate, now also a kendo instructor, challenges him with a prize of a year's worth of sushi if Ishida's team can beat his in a year, Kojiro is galvanized into action. When he manages to convince petite, unworldly kendo prodigy Tamaki Kawazoe to become part of his five-member girls' team, he figures that he's well on his way to winning.

Although Kojiro's situation starts the series off, the vast majority of the screen time is given to the girls on his team. In addition to Tamaki (who is also a huge fan of the imaginary anime series Blade Braver, which becomes significant from time to time), the girls' team features "Team Mom" Chiba Kirino, a cheerful, hard-working girl from a family that runs a deli; her best friend Sayako Kuwahara, the tallest and strongest girl on the squad, who wants to become a rock guitarist; sweetly pretty Miyako Miyazaki ("Miya Miya"), who is actually a bit of a thug (and has "pink" and "black" sides, similar to Hatsuharu's "black" and "white" sides in Fruits Basket); and later on, Satori Azuma, who is very talented at kendo but a complete ditz and a failure at just about everything else. There are also two boy kendoka: Yuji Nakata, who is a pleasant, athletic kid, and Danjuro Eiga ("Dan-kun"), who is played as complete joke. Dan-kun is Miya Miya's boyfriend, but after the first volume or so, he is always drawn as a simplified, unattractive chibi super-deformed figure ... and this fact actually gets mentioned from time to time in the story, smashing the fourth wall to bits.

The overall story arc is about the girls' getting better at kendo, of course, and in the first couple of volumes, especially, the manga explains a lot about modern sport kendo and how team tournaments work. Several arcs cover actual tournaments, where the girls are challenged not only by the skills of their opponents but also by some less-than-sportsmanlike behavior. But the heart of the manga is "slice of life" mini-arcs about the girls: Kirino's attempts to keep things going when there's an illness in her family, Miya Miya's problems with her female stalker-with-a-crush from middle school, Tamaki's efforts to save enough for a boxed set of her beloved Blade Braver, and so on.

The striking thing about this, to me, is how girl-centered it manages to be without being terribly "girly." OK, Miya Miya's part-time job is in a cutesy boutique; in the latest U.S. volume, the girls go on an expedition to a big shopping mall; Kirino and Saya insist on giving everyone cute nicknames; but otherwise, their concerns and activities were very approachable to geek-tomboy me. The girls talk together about schoolwork, kendo, their families, and each other - almost never about fads, clothes, or boys. Dan is the only boyfriend in the picture, and he's part of the squad - and played for laughs. The whole thing passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.

This seinen series has become a complete comfort read for me. The artwork is loose and sloppy (rather like Gravitation but with a more shoujo flavor), but it has a lot of heart.

 

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