I loved the anime, so I bought the manga. "Japanese schoolgirls get turned into Shinto gods" appears to be my favourite anime/manga genre, at least judging by how I've reacted to what I've seen of it. The protagonist is Inari, a rather clodhopping 13-year-old schoolgirl. You can get mature 13-year-olds and young 13-year-olds. Inari's a young one. She looks like a child, she thinks like a child, she has the body of a child and she loves like a child. There's a boy she likes at school, but being near him makes her brain melt. (In fairness, she's not alone in that.) Even she thinks she's an idiot. However she's also adorable and friendly, capable of winning over pretty much anyone with her innocent earnestness and lack of guile.
Among the friends she makes is a goddess called Uka-sama. An unfortunate incident leaves Inari with some of Uka-sama's powers, letting her shape-shift and pretend to be anyone she knows. Bear in mind that Inari wants to help everyone. Does this sound like a disaster waiting to happen? Well, it's not that bad, but it can get pretty close.
At its best, this manga is adorable. Inari is a delightful person. It's lovely to spend time in her presence and I could spend hours just following her friendship with Uka-sama. They're both innocents, Inari just because she is and Uka-sama because she's an invisible immortal who loves humans but has no experience of interacting with them. She can be clueless, especially when around Inari's brother Touka. She leaves herself wide open, in almost every sense. There's lots of comedy in this manga, especially when Uka-sama's regrettable brother enters the fray. Toshi-sama is a god. Toshi-sama loves his sister too much. Toshi-sama needs beating with sticks, or perhaps shooting in the head with a high-velocity rifle. (At one point Uka-sama does the latter. He's a god, so he'll be fine.)
Toshi-sama can be hysterical, although he gets less story time in later volumes.
The story's about a lot of things. Partly it's about our short-sighted comparisons of ourselves with other people. At some point almost everyone wishes they were someone else, which can be dangerous given Inari's powers. No matter how miserable you might think you are, there's someone out there who thinks you've been handed everything on a plate and wishes they could be you.
However it's also about relationships. Inari's friends are all-important, be they her classmates or the gods. Divine relationships are almost all weird or alienating. (Inari's actually quite sharp when it comes to gods. Her intelligence seems inversely proportional to how near she is to Tanbabashi-kun, so when in heaven she's more than capable of telling them all where to get off.) The manga's adorable with all these friends... and then it changes. Romance rears its head. People don't tell each other the truth. The happy relationships of the early volumes split into separate streams, with one each for Inari-Tanbabashi, Uka-Touka and the friends. It's not entirely comfortable. Inari and Tanbabashi nearly wreck everything for each other, repeatedly. They're idiots. Of course that's their prerogative, given their age, and I defy anyone not to look back at their teenage years and realise that they were they were ten times as big an idiot back then. However there's something a little unsettling and unsafe about the romantic relationships here. Child-like friendships are warm and comforting. The process of growing up isn't.
(The exception to this would be Touka-Uka, which has a warmer, more reassuring progression. If you're looking for a comfort blanket, that's them. Admittedly I thought Touka started out implausibly hostile to Uka-sama, even if one allows that he's been scared of her since he was a child. She's the sweetest, most generous, good-natured being in the multiverse, not to mention being gorgeous with a knockout figure. Is Touka blind or just mad? However that's just the romance's starting point.)
I have a slight problem with Tanbabashi. Theoretically I like the fact that the author's not afraid to make him a dick. He's not superhuman. When Inari appears to treat him badly, he's capable of reacting like a human being. However for much of the story he's either dramatically opaque (since we're seeing him through Inari's eyes) or being unsympathetic (his post-Christmas reaction and later his family issues). He's still basically a nice chap, but towards the end he becomes the hero of a major plot thread and I didn't think the story had earned that. I didn't care enough. To me, he'd felt more like Inari's prize than a character in his own right. I wanted Inari's friends to be the ones who went to save her, not him. Keiko! Or Sumizome or Maru! Bring them back more!
Is that deliberate? Is that what the story's saying? We find new relationships and let old ones drift into the background, even though you'll still always be friends? However there's also the theme of "be honest". Telling everything is always, always what these people should have been doing. Telling lies is putting a gun to your head. Shutting out your friends is hurtful, even if you think you're doing it for the best reasons. And that's why Inari's divine powers are so dangerous, because using them is inherently to lie... and, what's more, to lie in a way that's probably going to be caught out at some point.
But then we have the conclusion. Friends come together again. It's lovely and satisfying, although it makes use of a story device that I've always found a little distressing. The manga makes it work and in any case it's been foreshadowed earlier, but it adds a touch of bittersweet to what's otherwise a thoroughly happy ending. (We even get to see the girls a few years later. Whoah, Maru-chan looks different.)
Tomoko's read this too, for what it's worth. She was looking for reading matter and I had it on the shelf. She enjoyed it more than any other manga I've bought, but she found it obscurely embarrassing since Inari's romantic yearnings and friendships are so clearly that of a child. Which is fine, though. That's what Inari is. Tomoko also pointed out that it's nice to see shoujo manga art where people have proper human proportions, rather than, say, insect eyes, twig-like limbs and the Pointy Chins of Death. It's rather well drawn, actually. Lots of emotion, character and comedy. Technically I think it's seinen rather than shoujo, having been published in Young Ace, but such boundaries are getting increasingly blurred these days.
The anime covers almost exactly the manga's first half, incidentally. It would be nice to get a second season, but I'm not holding my breath since the manga finished last year and there's still been no anime announcement.
It's a lovely manga, I think, but one with a delicate hint of poison underneath the charm, adorable characters and often laugh-out-loud comedy. Inari's powers are designed to make readers nervous. The romances are fragile, since everyone involved is clueless and immature. No one has a road map. You like them and wish them all the best, but at times it kind of hurts to see them steering towards the cliff edge. (The "clueless and immature" label even applies to Uka-sama, but her romance is an exception to that childish pattern.) Oh, and I love Sumizome and her story.
It's very likeable and funny. Seriously. This manga made me squeak on a crowded train, while Toshi-sama paralysed me. Oh, and that Kyoto accent is cute.