When I heard that Denpa Books were releasing a new manga from the legendary mangaka Moto Hagio, I knew that I wanted to immediately check it out. For those unfamiliar with Moto Hagio, she's part of the incredible Year 24 Group, a group of women who revolutionised shojo manga with new, deeper themes and stunning art and panel work. Moto Hagio herself is well known for series such as The Poe Clan, The Heart of Thomas, They Were Eleven and many others. However, something I did note before reading was that Lil' Leo is a much more recent manga than many of her other works with most of the series that she's best known for being from the 70s. In contrast, Lil' Leo is from the late 2000s so I was immediately curious to see how different Lil' Leo would be from her prior works.
Lil' Leo follows an anthropomorphic cat named Leo who lives with his owner Hibiki. The story is structured episodically with Leo ending up in all sorts of situations from attempting to go to school, with human students mind you, to marriage interviews and even getting a job as a manga assistant with only one chapter that I can think of actually progressing from a previous chapter. The stories themselves are pleasant for the most part and I did find myself chuckling every so often. However, it's worth noting that those who're expecting the deep and complicated themes of Moto Hagio's prior titles will be disappointed here. Moto Hagio clearly intends that Lil' Leo be a much more light-hearted work than her other manga and I believe that she does succeed in many ways to create an enjoyable manga that has lovely, likable characters, a nice sense of humour and enjoyable situations. Leo is a very lovable protagonist who's naivety ends up working against him in many situations. His innocence really drew me to him, it also helps that I'm quite the cat person, and seeing this contrast with the realities of his misadventures leads to much comedy. While we do see some recurring characters, the only one besides Leo himself that left an impression on me was Hibiki. Hibiki quite often realises how absurd many of Leo's requests are but, rather than shut him down, she helps him to the best of her abilities so that he can experience the realities of his requests and make the decision for himself on whether to keep pursuing them. She's a genuinely great person and I was always happy to see how she would respond to Leo and his wants.
Before talking about the artwork, I want to discuss something that I found quite confusing that I'm sure I'm overthinking and that is the worldbuilding. It's clear from the very beginning that Leo himself, a cat, is capable of communicating with humans verbally. There is also a neighbour cat who frequently comes over to Leo and Hibiki's house to comment on whatever situation Leo finds or is about to find himself in and it's also clear that Leo is capable of communicating with this cat. What I couldn't quite figure out was whether other animals in this world such as cats are also capable of speaking with humans or if this ability is specific to Leo. I also found it quite strange how Leo is both acknowledged as being a cat but, in many ways, is treated as human. This particularly came to a head with the marriage interview chapter where I assumed that, because Leo is a cat, he'd be paired up with other cats. Instead, I was quite surprised to see him participating in marriage interviews with human women who, for the most part, treated him as a viable potential marriage partner. While played for comedic value, I couldn't help but feel a little bewildered by the worldbuilding, an issue I'm sure won't affect most people.
The Year 24 Group are known for their beautiful, stylish character designs, detailed artwork and, in my personal opinion, some of the most innovative and brilliant use of panels that I've ever seen. I was hoping to see this in Lil' Leo so I was a little disappointed to see a more simple looking manga. Now don't get me wrong, Lil' Leo is still a very nice looking manga with some pleasant character designs and nice detail. However, her use of panels is much more standard and, while still effective, I would have liked to see more of the unique panels the Year 24 Group are known for such as removed panel borders, allowing images to bleed into each other and unusual panel shapes such as circles. Nonetheless, the manga still looks very nice with most of my criticism being based on her prior work and I should stress that it still stands above many other modern manga's artwork.
With regards to how Lil' Leo was released by Denpa Books, I have mostly good news to report. The trim size of the book is a bit larger than your standard manga which is always something that I appreciate. The paper quality is also quite lovely and you also get quite a bizarre but nice extra called "It's Leo's Photo Diary!" which has pictures of real cats communicating with each other via speech bubbles. It's quite amusing and I'm glad that Denpa Books decided to include it. However, I do have to bring up that the book is contained in what I would call the flimsiest hardcover I've ever seen, to the point where I would hesitate to even call it a hardcover (I notice Amazon lists it as a paperback which I don't blame them for). Since the price of the book doesn't seem to have been affected much by this presentation, I ultimately decided that it's probably still better than if the book was a simple paperback but it's still something that I think people should be well aware of.
While Lil' Leo pales compared to the best that the Year 24 Group has to offer, it's still a very pleasant read with very likable characters, pleasant artwork and some laughs to be had. While I would argue that you still haven't experienced the traits that made the Year 24 Group so unique and special after reading Lil' Leo, I would also admit that there are also plenty of worse ways to begin reading their manga and, if you're looking for a lighthearted, cute manga to provide some comedy, you should consider giving Lil' Leo a shot.