Good trash revisited

This week’s random question has me nostalgic for Go! Comi and hopeful that someone will pick up some of their orphan titles, so I dug up an old Flipped column from August of 2009 that outlined some of my personal favorites from their catalog. To atone for the rerun, I’ll open with the following image:

I can’t believe summer is almost over.  June and July are vague, blurry memories.  Fortunately, there are still a few weeks before Labor Day, so it’s not too late to recommend some good trash for beach reading.  And when it comes to slightly tawdry, highly readable shôjo manga, Go! Comi has a very solid track record.

One of the titles from the company’s 2001 launch, Takako Shigematsu’s eight-volume Tenshi Ja Nai!!, remains one of my favorite examples of mean-girl manga.  Shigematsu combines sleek illustrations with twisty storytelling to concoct memorable soap opera.

Tenshi (or “I’m No Angel!!”) is set in an elite all-girls school, always a promising setting for scheming drama.  It’s protagonist, Hikaru, would like to avoid drama entirely; a brief childhood career as a model made her the target of ruthless bullying from jealous classmates, and she’s tried to keep her head down ever since.  Unfortunately, the school’s registrar gives her a roommate that makes her low-profile strategy impossible.

A budding starlet is the worst possible pairing for Hikaru.  The shared spotlight and jealousy of the student body are bad enough, but this starlet has a secret.  The fetching Izumi is actually a guy, as ruthless and conniving in private as his public persona is sweet and demure.  Izumi needs Hikaru’s help to keep his secret, and he’s not averse to blackmail to secure Hikaru’s cooperation and silence.

With secret identities, schoolgirl rivalries, gender bending, and show-biz ambition, Tenshi is the kind of story that virtually writes itself.  Shigematsu keeps the twists coming and even infuses the story with a reasonable amount of romance, though she never lapses into sentimentality.  Given her spiky cast of schemers, it’s hard to see how she could.

Go! Comi has released two other titles by Shigematsu.  There’s a forgettable one-volume outing, King of the Lamp, about a genie who must help young girls find love.  It’s noteworthy mostly for Shigematsu’s acknowledgement that girls are entitled to have sexual desires and to act on them without punishment or guilt.  More in the sneaky, substantive vein of Tenshi is Shigematsu’s Ultimate Venus, which is currently in release.

It’s another swimming-with-sharks story, this time focusing on an orphan who learns that she’s heir to a corporate dynasty.  After her mother’s death, young Yuzu is shocked to meet her high-powered cougar of a grandmother who wants to groom Yuzu to take over the family business.  Yuzu relies on her mother’s homespun, occasionally hardcore wisdom to foil scheming competitors and keep her head above the blood-filled social waters. (Go! Comi only published five of the nine volumes of the series.)

I would be hopelessly remiss if I looked at Go! Comi’s good trash and ignored You Higuri, a prolific manga-ka who stylishly skates on the edge of good taste.  Like the gifted Fumi Yoshinaga, Higuri rarely seems to allow herself to be confined by the strictures of category.  Higuri may generally aim artistically lower than slice-of-life queen Yoshinaga, but her philosophy similarly seems to be that more is better.  A straightforward fantasy story can always benefit from guy-on-guy sexual tension, and a costume drama is always better with a healthy dose of smut.

Her English-language debut came in the form of Cantarella (Go! Comi), a fictional, gothic look at the scheming Borgia clan.  Given the rich volume of historically documented scandal and sleaze the Borgias offer, it hardly seems necessary for Higuri to gild the lily with demonic possession, but gild it she does.  Budding patriarch Cesare is doomed from birth by his ambitious father, who sells the tot’s soul to the devil to support his own ambitions.

A possessed prince can always use a good right-hand man, and Cesare’s comes in the form of hunky assassin Chiaro.  When your father is the Pope and your moral compass is a hired killer, you know your life is bound to be complicated.  So why not complicate it further by entering into a twisted love triangle with your kept murderer and your own sister, Lucrezia?  History tells us that, glory days aside, the Borgias didn’t end well, and it seems unlikely that Higuri’s version will fare any better, but it’s certain to be juicy. (Go! Comi only published ten of the twelve volumes of the series.)

Having come of age in the 1980s with television shows like Dynasty and Dallas, I’m a sucker for sagas about powerful families full of sociopaths, so Cantarella has a special place in my heart.   That said, Go! Comi has launched another Higuri series that I may like even better, as it is top-to-bottom insane.  It’s Crown, written by Shinji Wada and illustrated by Higuri.

Wada is one of those seemingly rare male manga-ka who work primarily in shôjo, though his works (like Delinquent Girl Detective) often seem to favor an action-adventure bent.  Wada and Higuri’s respective sensibilities seem to blend perfectly, creating a freakish, addictive fusion of hardboiled violence and secret-princess sparkle.  Here’s the plot:  a plucky orphan learns that she’s actually a lost princess of a wealthy island nation; she also learns that she has a brother, half of a pair of ruthless mercenaries who break out the big guns to protect her.  Some hearts are set aflutter even as others are blown, still beating, from the chests of rival soldiers of fortune by military-grade ordinance.

The princess crushes on the boys.  The boys may or may not be crushing on each other.  Schoolgirls squeal at trained killers.  Skyscrapers explode.  Bloodthirsty assassins fail in their task because the princess is just so darned nice.  In other words, Crown is a nutty, freewheeling mash-up of manga clichés drawn from whatever category strikes Wada and Higuri’s fancies. It’s delightful.

I should note that guilty pleasures aren’t the only things Go! Comi does well.  I’ve already written at length about Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare, and the publisher has made some nice choices with sweeter, more sentimental shôjo.  Yuu Asami’s A.I. Revolution (five of seventeen volumes published) offers old-fashioned science fiction with a romantic bent, and Toriko Gin’s Song of the Hanging Sky (two of six volumes published) is a potent, beautifully drawn fable.