The dreary skies of Hou Ou High

When I do my “pick a dubious manga” polls, I have two preferred outcomes in mind. The first is that I’ll be pleasantly surprised by a manga that sounds questionable, finding a nugget of gold in an unexpected place. The second is that the book will be even worse than it sounds and that I’ll be able to unleash a bitter diatribe on something that’s offended one of my core values. The worst potential outcome is that I’ll merely be bored.

Unfortunately, the first choice in this series of reader-generated selections achieves that last result. Arata Aki’s The Beautiful Skies of Hou Ou High (Digital Manga) is garden-variety bad. Oh, it’s very bad, I assure you, but it’s not memorably bad.

It’s about a young lesbian whose mother contrives admission to an elite, all-boys’ school in the hopes that the complete immersion in a sea of wealthy dreamboats will burn the gay out of her daughter. (“The students are all fat-cats!” Mom crows. “If she gets pregnant, then we win!”) Aki doesn’t stage a train-wreck of skin-crawling sexual politics like Jun Yuzuki did with Gakuen Prince, mostly because I suspect Aki isn’t writer enough to conceive of a plot outlandish (or consistent) enough to be that awful.

Instead, we get a lot of quirky classmates out of central casting who harbor an inexplicable fascination with our heroine, Kei, whose defining characteristic is her stupidity. (“She really is an idiot,” Kei’s younger sister notes. In a moment of what’s later revealed to be understatement, her mother calls her “dimwitted.” “Man, everything about you is weak,” her first friend at school concludes.) Manga has a rich history of endearingly dumb protagonists. Kei Saeba is not among their number. She’s frantic and grating and dull, and her stupidity is so generic that it’s hard to invest any interest in it.

What passes for an ongoing subplot isn’t especially promising. The school’s administration has been blackmailed into admitting Kei, and they basically want her gone. (Sympathies, gentlemen!) The director is terrified of potential scandal involving a girl secretly attending the prestigious school, but he’s equally concerned with concealing his own secrets. I could go on, but I don’t care. Even a little.

I don’t care about stupid Kei. I don’t care about the blurry boy harem that Aki is assembling for her. I don’t care if the headmaster arranges for her to be tossed into a deep, icy well.

I do care about the fact that Digital Manga couldn’t be bothered to include translation notes for the volume, as at least knowing what some references were would have given me something to think about besides the manga I was trying to read. But no, all I had to work with were dull characters, inane plot developments, and a tone that couldn’t even work up the energy to offend me.

Blue Exorcist, I’m sorry I ever doubted you.