Songs to Make You Smile is a single volume anthology of short stories by Natsuki Takaya, the creator of Fruits Basket. The five stories collected in this book are all from early in Takaya’s career and thus have a much older and, is some cases, less polished look then her more recent work. The majority of the stories focus on romance and young people struggling with self-expression and, like most anthologies, some offerings are stronger than others.
Songs to Make You Smile: The title story and first in the collection features Atsuhi, a socially awkward teen with a naturally scowly face that tends to frighten away or offend everyone. Finding it difficult to speak to most people, Atsuhi plays in a band and uses singing to communicate the things he can’t say. He starts to grow close to Anzu, a girl at his school who has difficulty fitting in and has experienced bullying in her past, and the two start to form a pretty cute little romance. Unfortunately, this story makes use of some unpleasant clichés and a pair of boys who have a beef with Atsuhi decide to sexually assault Anzu, which prompts Atsuhi to fly into a rage and beat them up. Using this kind of trope to create drama is clumsy writing, at best, and it’s only made worse by the fact that the emotional impact of the assault is downplayed. Anzu seems more upset by the fact that Atsuhi is suspended, and his bands concert canceled, as a result of the fight then she is by the way she was treated! Definitely not my favourite story in the collection.
Ding Dong: Chisato’s father recently passed away and she’s been left in the care of her stepmother, who had only been married to her father for 3 months before he died. While her stepmother is kind and caring, Chisato feels uncertain about their relationship. Prior to his death, Chisato felt distant from her father, who was constantly working and never showed any outward signs of affection. She longed for a closer relationship with him, but now it’s too late and she can’t imagine that her stepmother could really care for her. But her child-hood friend helps Chisato realize that she herself never reached out to her father or expressed to him how she was truly feeling, but despite that she still loved him. Thanks to this realization, and some added reassurance from her stepmother, Chisato realizes that her father really did love her, and she and her stepmother are able to start over as a family. This is probably my favourite story in the collection because I appreciate that the stepmother is shown to genuinely love Chisato. I have a close relationship with my own stepmother, so it warms my heart to see a story with such a positive depiction of stepparents. That said, I do feel like the story lets Chisato’s neglectful father off the hook a little too easily, but otherwise it’s a very touching story that really resonated with me.
Voice of Mine: Inagaki is a prodigy at the violin, but his classmates all think that he’s just riding the coattails of his parents, who are both famous musicians. Troubled by the fact that his music doesn’t seem to reach his peers, Inagaki considers giving up the violin, but is encouraged by Futaba, a viola player who is bullied by her upperclassmen and accused of copying their sound. Inspired by Futaba’s resilience and by her assurances that his music is his own and not his parents, Inagaki is able to keep playing and gives a performance that even his harshest critics had to admit was, not only great, but wholly his own. While it features a fairly simple plot, this story has a very earnest charm to it, and it stood out to me as one of the better stories in this manga.
Double Flower: Suguru is a young man who enjoys sewing and loves cute and girly things and has become estranged from his traditionalist family as a result. Luckily, he is able to make a living off of his sewing skills, but he is struggling from feelings of unrequited love for his friend, who is crushing on a more traditionally masculine boy. Enter Aya, Suguru’s feisty niece who has run away from home and has decided to crash at his place while she works through some difficult family drama. Aya pushes Suguru to take a chance and express his true feelings to his friend. Aya’s precociousness is a little over the top at times, but it’s nice to see a romance that embraces a male lead that doesn’t conform to established gender norms. Not my favourite story in the anthology but still enjoyable.
Princess Dark Black: This story features the characters from Natsuki Takaya’s manga series Tsubasa: Those with Wings reimagined as the characters in a fairytale. This story is a pure comedy, with the eccentric characters failing to conform to the usual fairytale tropes and the “pure hearted” princess acting like a selfish tyrant. The contrast between the narration text and what’s actually happening in the panels is pretty hilarious, however, I suspect that some of the humor would be lost on readers who haven’t also read Tsubasa: Those with Wings. If you are familiar with that series, it can be a lot of fun to see these characters inhabiting a fairytale world, but, given that you need that context to fully appreciate the story, I’d say it is probably the weakest part of the book.
While the stories in Songs to Make You Smile are sweet and entertaining, I don’t feel like any of them really wowed me. It’s interesting to read Natsuki Takaya’s early manga, but I don’t believe any of these stories showcase her true power as a writer or artist. I think I would only recommend this to Natsuki Takaya fans who want to read or collect all of her work.
Final Score: 6 out of 10
If you’ve read this anthology, please let me know what your thoughts are in the comments. You can also check out my reviews of some of Natsuki Takaya’s other works: