Meh manga

Earlier this week, Kate Dacey examined the concept of “meh” as it relates to critical discourse. Conveniently enough, I’ve just finished trudging through two titles that fall squarely in the “meh” range. Neither is especially bad, but neither transcends competence or adds any secret ingredient that makes them linger in the memory or heart.

Both are shôjo titles from Del Rey’s defunct manga line, so it may seem a little harsh to dissect them, but I liked Kate’s piece and the ensuing discussion so much that my mind is stuck in “meh” mode, and I need to push these books out of my system by taking quick looks at their respective – and admittedly routine — failures.

First is Natsumi Ando’s Wild @ Heart, a done-in-one collection of a three-volume series from Kodansha’s Nakayoshi. I was a big fan of Kitchen Princess, Ando’s collaboration with Miyuki Kobayashi, but the primary strength of that series is the often surprisingly dark writing. Wild @ Heart is on the fluffy end of the spectrum, an innocent romance with a reasonably promising sitcom premise. It’s about an average junior high school girl whose explorer father brings home a feral boy he met on his travels. Will Chino be able to look past Hyo’s uncivilized behavior to form a friendship, or perhaps even more? The answer to this question, and to all questions Ando poses in this series, is unfortunately “Of course.”

Maybe it’s the result of reading the whole thing at once rather than bit by bit, but Hyo’s civilization seems to happen too quickly. The earlier chapters, with Hyo bouncing around in his school uniform (when he can be bothered to keep it on) have some funny bits, but things level out too quickly, and he becomes an only slightly off-kilter cute boy. Even before he settles down, he’s so good-hearted that Chino’s resistance seems perfunctory and even snobbish.

But the ultimate failing here is that the ending is telegraphed. There’s no suspense in the evolution of the relationship, moving from beat to beat in predictable, almost plodding rhythm. Ando’s art has always struck me as a more coherent version of Arina Tanemura’s. The coherence is welcome, even if the volume of screen tone is equivalent, but Ando’s kind of visual cuteness badly needs some narrative darkness or edge for counterpoint. It reinforces the bland sweetness of the story rather than subverting it, and vice versa.

Ema Toyama’s I Am Here! at least has its heart in the wrong place. In it, we meet an overlooked, isolated girl who’s encouraged to make real-world friends and assert herself by the readers of her blog. Hikage falls into a category of character that Mitch of Blogfonte winningly described as “Asperger Sue.” The efforts of socially inept characters to engage can result in manga that’s funny or moving or both, but I Am Here! is hobbled by the work’s flat sincerity.

Hikage is just so blandly sweet and earnest that it’s hard to invest much interest in her plight. I found myself reaching the uncharitable conclusion that she’s not more popular because she’s kind of a bore. Neither her desire to connect with people nor the obstacles to that goal feel very specific; she’s just a person who fades into the background, and that doesn’t even feel particularly unfair. She’s less of an underdog than a charity case — a nice, nondescript girl who can’t quite do the heavy lifting of a protagonist.

Complicating things is the fact that her rivals seem just plain mean. The notion of someone being threatened enough by this homeless kitten reduces them to overreacting, insecure caricatures. This is always a tricky balance, crafting nuanced foes for an openhearted innocent, and Toyama doesn’t manage to strike it.

Toyama is scrupulous in mapping out Hikage’s steps out of the shadows. She’s trying to do the hard work of building investment in Hikage’s evolution, but the formula of this kind of story overwhelms any spark that might be generated by quirky characters or scenarios. It ends up reading more like a “How to Be Popular” manual than an organic story.

This book collects the first two volumes of the five of the series, which ran in Kodansha’s Nakayoshi. The remaining volumes are on Kodansha’s publishing schedule for this year.

(These comments are based on review copies provided by the publisher.)