From the stack: Tenjo Tenge vol. 1

From my point of view, there are tons of reasons to dislike Oh!great’s Tenjo Tenge, which is getting a second English-language release, this time from Viz. The first source of complaint, obviously, is its disastrous first English-language release from DC’s lamented CMX imprint. CMX edited the raunchy, violent series for content, which triggered outrage among members of the most likely core audience for the book.

That decision, hardly genius, gave CMX a permanent black eye among a number of particularly enthusiastic manga fans. No matter how many excellent titles they published, they were always the greedy, tone-deaf censors who violated the purity of Tenjo Tenge. (Repeat the last part of that sentence to yourself.) Years later, when DC cynically shuttered its manga imprint, people were still crowing that they got what they deserved for the shoddy way they treated the series. Of course, some of us couldn’t muster that particular brand of schadenfreude.

And, at the time the series first dropped, some of us were too busy being mildly revolted by the content of the series that survived the editing. And, beyond a negative qualitative assessment, we were left to wonder why DC would publish the series at all if they couldn’t adhere to the style and presentation of the original, since it was hard to imagine how it could be that much more tacky and obnoxious. It was still gross and juvenile and occasionally profoundly offensive, even with the softening.

Now, Viz is presenting the series in its shrink-wrapped, Parental-Advisory glory, because Viz can get away with that sort of thing, having built up a respectable catalog of mature and/or adult manga in addition to its vast reservoir of general-audience material. Please note the “and/or” I put between mature and adult, because it’s a continuum rather than a binary.

I would define “mature manga” as dealing with complex themes in thoughtful and imaginative ways. I would define “adult manga” as including explicit sex and graphic violence. A given title can certainly be both – Felipe Smith’s Peepo Choo (Vertical), Osamu Tezuka’s MW (also Vertical), several of Fumi Yoshinaga’s yaoi works. And describing a title as simply “adult” doesn’t automatically imply that it’s no good; a book can pander all it wants as long as it does so with energy and force. Kazuo Koike defines good adult manga for me, because I don’t find his works thematically challenging, but I do find them engrossing for their structure and the ways his storytelling inspires his collaborating illustrators.

From my point of view, Tenjo Tenge is dumb, pandering trash, and the dumbness is the most unforgiveable quality. It’s about stupid boys who like to kick ass. They muck up the needlessly complex ass-kicking caste system at their new school. Neither lead is particularly likeable, nor are any of the members of the school faction that takes the boys under their wings. The structure of the series is basically “violence, violence, crude humor, violence, female nudity, violence, repeat,” with a truly egregious rape scene thrown into the mix to make the boys sad that someone touched their stuff, also serving to show how evil their nemeses are. That may be the surest way to make me hate a piece of fiction, and Oh!great makes the sequence even more distasteful than usual. (I did wonder, back in the days of CMX’s visual amendments, if that scene would be more or less offensive without the superimposed undergarments. It’s exactly as offensive.)

At some point, I should probably try and disclaim that I’m simply not the audience for this kind of things, because I’m generally not. I can’t really bemoan the fact that thug-brawl manga hasn’t hit it big here, simply because I don’t care to read it. But I really think, even factoring in matters of personal taste, this is just lowbrow and lazy and gross. I’m perfectly capable of liking adult manga. I’m just not in the market for bad adult manga.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)

From the stack: Maid Shokun vol. 1

As I was fulfilling my obligation to read Maid Shokun (Tokyopop), a question kept crossing my mind: is this what postmodern fan-service looks like? The cover promises to serve up a hearty tray full of pandering, and the concept – what is it like to work at a maid café? – invites the reader to impose all kinds of parenthetical phrases and subtext. But the series is really just about what it’s like to work at a maid café. Seriously, who does that?

In this case, Akira Kiduki and Nanki Satou are the ones who do that, and they did it for Comic Gum published by Wani Books. I don’t know much about Comic Gum, but it seems like the kind of magazine where fans of the up-skirt will feel right at home. This leads me to wonder what its target audience must have thought of a series that goes so far as to squarely consider the inner lives of women whose job it is to cater to one of their fetishes.

Kiduki and Satou are clearly and consciously creating tension between the services that the café provides – pretty girls in uniform cheerfully greeting guests as “Master” – and the fact that these employees are real women with complicated lives independent of their work. The maids display a fondness for their clientele that’s free of condescension; they like that they can provide these men with brief escape from their often bleak lives. But they’re very clear on the boundaries between occasional fantasy and the day to day.

The creators aren’t averse to letting things get messy. One customer loses sight of the aforementioned boundaries, which triggers a complicated series of responses among the café’s employees. It highlights the delicate balance those boundaries require to sustain the fantasy and keep it safe. Media attention proves to be a blessing and a curse for the establishment, and the maids are forced to consider the possibility of becoming an adult establishment. A relationship between two of the employees reveals homophobia in the workplace. Kiduki and Satou have a lot on their minds, and very little of it involves giving their readers a quick thrill.

Unfortunately, the series is more interesting conceptually than in execution. The creators are better at introducing ideas than incorporating them into a story, which results in a lot of chatter that’s more expository than involving. The characters inspire varying degrees of sympathy and interest. Some are clearly types – bossy girl Arumi, dippy innocent Chiyoko – but some show real potential – floor manager Haine, the most grounded, mature presence in the joint. Unfortunately, the types get the most focus, which makes it hard to invest much feeling in the series.

Still, this series is a whole lot more than a cursory consideration would suggest. If anything, it’s too cerebral in its approach to allow a reader to really enter the world it’s trying to evoke. With a little more heart, it could be something quite special. Of course, we’re unlikely to ever find out if it achieves that, since Tokyopop only managed to release one volume before shuttering its manga publishing efforts. I wouldn’t say I’m devastated by that outcome, as I can’t see Maid Shokun becoming a cherished favorite, but this book has offered a lot of food for thought.


From the stack: Saturn Apartments vol. 3

Hisae Iwaoka’s Saturn Apartments (Viz) is the only title that I’d read prior to its inclusion in the top ten list of the Young Adult Library Services Association’s 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens. I can’t help but compare this book to Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica (Vertical), which earned a place on the main list. I like them both a lot, but I tend to think I’d have argued for Spica to take Saturn’s place in the top ten.

This is mostly because Spica has a stronger underlying narrative. It’s got a clearer arc and digs deeper into its cast of characters. That doesn’t suggest failure on the part of Saturn, as the first two volumes clearly indicate that it has different aims, favoring episodic world-building rather than sequential storytelling. It’s easy to enjoy Saturn chapter by chapter, but it’s easier to become involved in Spica, if that makes any sense.

In the third volume of Saturn Apartments, Iwaoka seems to undertake the construction of some substantial subplots. Stand-alone chapters give way to small story arcs, and threads start to recur throughout the volume. This is welcome in a way, because it shows an intention to give the series more weight, but it also seems like this kind of plotting may not be Iwaoka’s strongest skill.

After two volumes of beautifully drawn, gentle glimpses into Iwaoka’s orbital world, the subplots feel rather clumsily wedged into the narrative. They aren’t unpromising, but their emergence feels abrupt. It strikes me that none of the supporting characters were yet able to carry that much purpose at the time it was thrust upon them. The eventual (and logical) inclusion of Mitsu in that thread may change that, but the sequences are still hampered by an imbalanced quantity of expository dialogue that’s out of step with the rest of the script.

One thing that does constitute a welcome development here is a slight shift in tone. Iwaoki is also expressing more interest in the class disparities that characterize the culture she’s built. There was nothing wrong with her initial approach, affirming the value of unglamorous work in a society, but it’s nice to see her underline some of the unfairness that keeps her fictional society ticking.

Overall, the series is still one of my favorites. Iwaoki’s graceful illustrations and fragile character designs continue to hold the eye, and the underlying concept is as sturdy and productive as ever. I just wish the shift to a different, more complex kind of story felt less awkward.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)


From the stack: Kekkaishi 3-in-1 vol. 1

I’ve always heard great things about Yellow Tanabe’s Kekkaishi (Viz) from eminently reliable sources, but I’ve dawdled on taking a serious look at the series because I feel so late to the party. When a title hits its twenties and you haven’t really tried it, there’s a barrier to entry. Viz, in its ongoing efforts to get more of my money, has softened that barrier by offering a 3-in1 edition of Kekkaishi.

You know that I’m very pro-omnibus. I’m not a fiend about paper quality; if I can focus on the page I’m reading instead of what’s on the flip side, I’m perfectly content. For me, it’s a worthwhile trade-off if it results in more content for a lower price. And sometimes the larger span of content makes a more persuasive case for the series that a single volume could. The first third of this collection is likeable but not particularly gripping. It takes a while for Tanabe to get into her groove and for the series to really take off.

Kekkaishi tells the story of young exorcists who spend their nights protecting their school from demons that range from pesky to violently destructive. The school used to be the site of a clan led by a lord whose spiritual aura made him something of a demon magnet. This forced him to hire a powerful exorcist to protect his home and family. After the exorcist’s death, his disciples split into two factions, each thinking their efforts were superior.

Yoshimori and Tokine are the chosen heirs of those two families of exorcists, and even though the family they served is long gone, their land is still demon central. It’s also the place where the kids spend their day in class. Tokine is a couple of years older than Yoshimori. She’s diligent in her training, and she’s eager to accept the family mantle. Yoshimori is resentful over the fact that he’s been forced onto the family career track, but his attitude changes when Tokine is hurt because of his carelessness and lack of skill. He vows to become a better kekkaishi, not to fulfill the family legacy, but to make sure his friend Tokine isn’t hurt again. (The emotional arc of his origin story is a much less dour version of Peter Parker’s, basically.)

That’s a lot of explanation, but it’s necessary, and Tanabe presents it in a lively manner. It sets up the relationship between Yoshimori and Tokine, which is as central to the series as the demon battles. Of course, the demon battles aren’t to be sneezed at. The kekkaishi’s skill set is refreshingly straightforward: they trap the demons in cubic force fields, then banish them. Things get complicated depending on the strength and malice of the demon in question, and Tanabe draws these sequences with great skill and clarity. Designs for the demons are wonderfully varied.

In the first volume, it can seem like Tanabe is holding back, sticking to short but effective stories rather than really digging into her characters and situations. Maybe the feat of collecting a full volume of material gave her the confidence to go deeper, since the second volume opens with a very involving multi-story arc that examines Tokine’s past and introduces more detail about the larger supernatural culture of the kekkaishi and the mystical types around them. From there, Tanabe goes from strength to strength, alternating between exciting battles, arcs full of emotional undercurrents, and goofy one-off stories that bridge between larger tales.

Aside from general approval of the series overall, there are some elements that I really, really like. One of them is the fact that she can render Yoshimori’s training in ways that are interesting and entertaining, which is a rare feat for a shônen mangaka. The kekkaishi’s means of battle are so simple, but Tanabe has given a lot of thought to how they can be applied, and it’s fun to watch the characters figure out the variations.

Another highlight are the cranky old people. Yoshimori’s crotchety grandfather and Tokine’s sly, spry granny are constantly trying to get each other’s goat. It’s the kind of half-serious, half-reflexive squabbling that can really liven up the vibe. Best of all is that they both get moments that reveal them as formidable kekkaishi in their own right.

The third element that I particularly enjoy is Tokine. In her author notes, Tanabe explains the character’s conception. She didn’t want to create a victim for the hero to rescue over and over, and she wanted to give Tokine some advantages that made her Yoshimori’s equal. Tanabe succeeded admirably in that regard. Tokine isn’t as powerful as Yoshimori, but she’s more skilled and certainly more mature. She’s an almost serene, steely presence amidst the demon-fighting mayhem, though she has her own goofy foibles. You can see why Yoshimori has such a huge crush on her, even if she doesn’t acknowledge it.

I didn’t really need another long, ongoing series on my to-read list, but I’m glad to add Kekkaishi to it. It’s got all of the elements of a sturdy supernatural adventure with plenty of quirks to keep things from turning formulaic. While I doubt Viz will run through the series entire back catalog in the 3-in1 format, it’s not so oppressively long that it will cost a fortune to fill in the gaps. And the series is available on the publisher’s iPad app, making that process relatively simple. I hope this strategy gives Kekkaishi the commercial boost it deserves.


From the stack: A Certain Scientific Railgun vol. 1

The art is crisp and attractive, giving a reasonably clear rendering of events that range from stopping for a snack to frying a gang of thugs. Character designs are on the serviceable end of the spectrum, but they’re appealing enough.

Wait, I’m sorry. I started in the middle, and you don’t really have any idea what I’m talking about, do you? Isn’t that annoying? Let’s hit the reset button.

A Certain Scientific Railgun (Seven Seas), by Motoi Fuyukawa, is based on a side story from a very popular light-novel franchise, A Certain Magical Index, written by Kazuma Kamachi. There’s nothing in the way of publisher’s notes in Railgun to indicate that, but there are plenty of gaps in the story to suggest that you’re missing something. Characters and components of the fictional world have weight more by implication than by content which, let’s face it, is a lot less persuasive than it might be.

Railgun could be interesting on its own merits. It’s about a group of psychic schoolgirls who help keep the peace in their corner of a futuristic Tokyo. Some of them are on the law enforcement track, but the lead, Mikoto, is not, even though she’s one of the most powerful psychics in the city. This is never actually explained, and it never stops Mikoto from intervening, so the plot point hovers on the story’s fringes as a needless distraction. It’s hard not to like Mikoto for her toughness and independence, but it’s hard to care much about her adventures.

This is because Fuyukawa and Kamachi don’t seem to have much of an attention span for their actual story. Promising subplots and mysteries are put on hold for not-particularly-interesting slice-of-life sequences. I’m all in favor of manga where the heroines can both blow things up and take time to buy a new pair of pajamas, but these individual components actually seem to leech energy from one another rather than create an engaging or mutually supportive contrast. There’s an overall aimlessness that individual high points can’t overcome.

There are also bits of fan service that are both completely gratuitous and unimaginatively repetitive. The first time a classmate sneaks up on a scantily clad schoolgirl to feel her up, it’s jarring. The second time, the virtually identical staging makes me both irritated at the pandering and at the laziness. There isn’t a pervasive undercurrent of fan service, which makes these instances seem like somebody got a memo from the editor: “Our reader poll numbers are sagging. Throw in a girl-on-girl groping scene in the next chapter.”

Again, though, the real problem is that Railgun feels like a piece without a puzzle. If you squint (and search online), you can find the box with the picture, but that doesn’t improve the reading experience. I’d liken it to collecting one or two Marvel or DC comics that periodically get dragged into a major franchise event and have neither the time nor the inclination to fold that event into the narrative in an organic fashion. And that isn’t an experience I’m eager to repeat.

(Thanks to everyone who voted in the dubious manga poll that resulted in this review.)

From the stack: Ten Questions for the Maidman

I think Adam Warren has done tremendous work turning Empowered into something much greater than the sum of its parts. This trend continues with the second series special, Ten Questions for the Maidman. I’m always impressed with the ways that Warren can stretch a single, seemingly unpromising joke several times farther than what would be the snapping point for lesser writers.

Adam Warren is joined on artistic duties by Emily Warren, who provides painted pages for the titular interview that are sprinkled throughout the comic. They’re attractive, but they reinforce for me how essential Adam Warren’s creative control is to the property. One of the reasons Maidman is a great joke is the character’s routinely masculine body language. He’s just a guy who happens to fight crime in a frilly maid’s costume, as stolid and solid as your average caped vigilante.

In the interview pages, Emily Warren overlays Maidman’s body language with a certain coyness that, to my way of thinking, undermines the deadpan genius of the character, which is articulated in Maidman’s responses to the fatuous interviewer for a super-hero version of Inside Edition or Entertainment Tonight. The amusing cognitive dissonance is lost when Maidman is actually behaving in ways that are consistent with his appearance. It’s just not as funny, and it almost seems to contradict what the character is saying in his feature sequences. His shtick seems more about playing on the perceptions opponents impose on him, not about actively triggering those perceptions. It’s funnier when it’s the villain’s gay-panic paranoia at work rather than being a response to Maidman’s active provocation.

Still, this is an entirely welcome expansion on the Empowered universe, focusing on one of the funnier and more subversive supporting characters while still giving the title character some moments to shine. I hope Adam Warren keeps this specials coming, as they help to pass the time between new volumes of the main series by being perfectly entertaining in their own right.


From the stack: Maoh: Juvenile Remix vols. 4 and 5

The good news: there’s nothing wrong with Maoh: Juvenile Remix (Viz) that Kazuya Minekura couldn’t fix. The bad news: Maoh: Juvenile Remix was created by Megumi Osuga.

Maoh, based on a story by Kotaro Isaka, has an interesting plot. A corporation is undertaking a neighborhood revitalization plan that basically involves razing the place and displacing the residents to make room for luxury high-rises. The corporation is opposed by a group of vigilantes led by an enigmatic and ostensibly charismatic figure named Inukai. Caught in the middle of these two forces is a high-school student named Ando who has the minor psychic power of being able to put his words into the mouths of others.

The story is packed with corrupt officials, hired killers, angry mobs, and generally seedy types. There are attempts at moral complexity and the angst of personal choice in a crumbling world. There’s a reasonable sprinkling of homoeroticism.

In other words, it reminds me of Minekura’s Wild Adapter (Tokyopop). Unfortunately, it also makes me wish I was reading Wild Adapter instead.

The main problem with Maoh is its leaden sincerity. Ando makes Hamlet look like a type-A personality, and his use of his “ventriloquism” is generally awkward and hard to follow. (How does forcing people to quote Kamen Rider protect you from mob violence?) The dialogue is almost always overblown, and Ando’s droning internal monologues may make you wish someone else was putting words in his mouth.

The promising plot is generally sacrificed to spectacle. The people of Nekota City seem even more prone to mob mentality than the denizens of Springfield, and it’s supposed to be chilling here instead of goofy and ironic. Inukai and his vigilantes seem to have no credible moral position, and their opponents in the Anderson Group are just greedy, which equates to “bad.” There are interesting arguments to be made in a story like this, but it’s just a frame for bombast in this case.

The quality of the art varies quite a bit. Some chapters have a sleek competence that resembles a combination of Takeshi Obata and Naoki Urasawa. A lot of the time, the pages seem like they’ve been finished in a hurry. I would describe the character design as patchy; I’ve seen many a manga assassin look ridiculous and still be terrifying, but Osuga doesn’t strike that balance. Some of the crowd scenes display too-strenuous attempts to achieve visual variety and end up looking like a community theatre musical chorus that was asked to provide its own costumes. Even the homoeroticism doesn’t help, as it frequently seems inadvertent, unless Osuga is trying to suggest what a cute couple Ando and his younger brother might be.

Maoh badly needs some of Minekura’s polish and slyness, but it has neither. It’s just lumpy and overly serious, with a waffling protagonist who lacks urgency. Hard as it tries to simulate it, Maoh lacks the sex appeal it needs to really be something.

(Based on review copies provided by the publisher.)


Lychee Light Club

David: Kate and I were both planning on writing about Usamaru Furuya’s Lychee Light Club, which arrives courtesy of Vertical this week, and we decided to pool our critical resources. It’s… quite a reading experience, and I think Kate and I have different overall responses to the book. First, though, Kate, would you like to take a stab at summarizing the plot?

Kate: If I were at a cocktail party, and someone I didn’t know very well asked me to describe Lychee Light Club, I might say that it’s about a group of teenage boys who are just beginning to go through puberty. They’ve formed their own secret organization with elaborate rules and rituals, and go to extreme lengths to conceal their activities from outsiders. Among those activities: building Lychee, a robot who’s programmed to find beautiful girls and bring them back to the clubhouse. Not long after his activation, however, Lychee develops a conscience, forming a bond with one of his kidnapping victims and turning against his creators.

Of course, that summary makes Lychee Light Cub sound more coherent and less violent than it is; the boys deal with threatening figures by raping, torturing, and dismembering them, acts that Usamaru Furuya draws in exquisite detail. There’s also a great deal of internal conflict within the Lychee Light Club, as several charismatic boys vie for control of the group. And in true Lord of the Flies fashion, the boys begin turning on each other with a savagery that’s genuinely disturbing.

How’d I do?

David: I think you did very well. It’s a fever dream of adolescent power fantasies manifesting themselves as abominable realities. I think there’s always an element of that in Furuya’s storytelling, and I don’t always have a lot of patience for it. I tend to find that his work is characterized more by flashes of brilliance than sustained craftsmanship.

In this case, though, and in spite of the really strenuous efforts to be shocking, I found this to be the most coherent work of Furuya’s that I read. It’s packed with undeniably revolting moments, but it holds together in ways that something like Genkaku Picasso didn’t. Whether that coherence compensates for the unsavory content is an entirely different question, obviously.

Kate: I wonder if the story’s coherence can be attributed to the fact that Furuya adapted Lychee Light Club from a pre-existing work. (For folks who haven’t read the English edition, Furuya based the story on an experimental play called Tokyo Grand Guignol.) Perhaps working from someone else’s storyline helped Furuya concentrate more on plot mechanics, something he definitely had difficulty doing in Genkaku Picasso. It certainly makes me curious to see what he’ll do with Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human.

As for the unsavory content… I don’t even know where to start. I understand that the story is intended to be dark satire, to reveal just how hysterical and silly young adolescent boys can be, especially before they know how to approach and interact with girls. But I have a hard time getting on board with that kind of satire when it requires the characters to grossly abuse girls and women. And I have an even harder time embracing that kind of plot device when the author eroticizes the violence against female characters. I’m thinking, in particular, of an early scene in which the boys capture one of their teachers. Though we’re meant to see that the boys’ behavior is a symptom of their depravity, the scene in which they kill her is charged with a thoroughly unpleasant, sexual energy: they fondle her, they strip her, and then they vivisect her, inspecting her internal organs with prurient interest. As a female reader, my own revulsion was so strong that it was hard to push past that scene.

David: That scene definitely constructs a high barrier to the work. I almost wonder if it got so gruesome so early to inform the audience that this was what they were likely to get, and that they might choose to flip past those chapters as they appeared in Manga Erotics F. An issue that may compound the problem of the frankly repulsive acts these kids perpetrate is that, while Lychee Light Club is more structurally coherent than some of Furuya’s other works, that doesn’t mean that it has a sound and consistent philosophy. On one hand, I’m not a fan of entertainments that try and paint aberrant depravity as generational malaise, and this book certainly doesn’t attempt that. But it doesn’t really present any other explanation aside from the malignant influence of a charismatic psychopath. And that’s a problematic starting point for other reasons.

But I’m glad you mentioned the work’s theatrical origins side by side with its offensive content, because the theatricality was key to my appreciation of what I feel like Furuya is doing here. One of the striking things about the book was the very specific theatricality that I took away from it.

By that, I don’t mean that it was melodramatic or extravagant, but that it seemed wedded to certain theatrical conventions. Furuya kept using compositions that suggested proscenium staging to me, a sort of one-set gore opera not unlike Sondheim and Prince’s Sweeney Todd or the sewer scenes in Phantom of the Opera. Even the strange flatness of character and event, no matter how horrible, seemed like a conscious aesthetic choice that a theatrical troupe might assume as their distinguishing shtick. I’m not saying it justifies the gratuitous violence, particularly when it was sexualized, but it did add a layer of distance for me, and it added a certain degree of fascination.

Kate: I agree; the characters’ interactions with one another — especially the boys’ group dynamic — feel like pure stage business, which makes it easier to interpret their behavior as ritual or schtick. I also agree with you that there’s something aesthetically appealing about the way Furuya emphasizes the story’s theatrical roots, both in the way he frames the action and in the way he moves his characters around the “stage”; the boys’ ceremonies reminded me of something out of Young Sherlock Holmes — well, if that movie had been made by Leni Riefenstahl, and not Steven Spielberg.

And yet…

I’m still struggling with my reaction to the way the female characters are treated. Kanon endures less sexual and physical humiliation than the other female characters, yet she’s so saintly that it’s hard to see her as anything more than an adolescent fantasy figure. Maybe that’s the point, but Furuya’s treatment of the other female characters is so despicable that it’s hard to know whether he’s condemning the boys’ behavior or just shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Gosh, that’s just how young teenagers are.”

David: I’m glad you mentioned that shrug, because I view it as a consistent problem in this sub-genre of fiction. When I was in college, it seemed like there was a minor flood of independent films about how awful and amoral teen-agers are, and my consistent reaction to them was always, “Yes? And?” I’ve never thought that merely identifying the depths to which any group of people can sink isn’t sufficient purpose for fiction, no matter how well it’s crafted. When it resorts to a vérité approach to that material, whether it’s a movie like River’s Edge or a graphic novel like Ayako, I feel like there’s nothing to respond to but the bleak appraisal, and that’s always unsatisfying. Lychee at least has the absurd theatricality to elevate it.

But, as you say, that’s not going to be enough to mitigate the effect of violence, particularly the violence against women. And Kanon is a problematic female lead in the sense that she’s very much in that gray area between ambiguous and under-developed. I kept hoping that there was more to her behavior, as I would occasionally detect some suggestion of a larger pattern to her actions, but that never really cohered into anything meaningful. She influenced the outcome of the story, but that was less through agency than it was a result of an incongruous female presence, which is hardly the same thing as an active female character. Does that make sense?

Kate: Absolutely — I think you’ve put your finger on why I struggled so much with the story, even though Kanon is intended to be a sympathetic figure.

Switching gears, I wanted to ask you what you thought of the artwork.

David: I’ve always been taken with Furuya’s art, even when it’s in service of this kind of material. He strikes a really impressive balance between realism and stylization, I think, and that was definitely my impression here.

One thing I have to mention, which is minor but struck me repeatedly in this book: the odd blush that he applies to boys’ lips. It’s such a strange little detail, but I always notice it, and I always find it unsettling in a productive way, at least in this book. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it landed in this place where it suggested both innocence and horror.

Kate: That small detail with the boys’ lips harkens back to what you said about Lychee Light Club‘s theatricality; it’s as if the characters are wearing stage make-up to make them look even younger and more androgynous.

And speaking of the boys’ appearance, one of the things I found most interesting about Lychee Light Club is the way in which Furuya channels the spirit of Suehiro Maruo. When I first flipped through the book, I was struck by how many of the characters reminded me of an image that appears in Frederick Schodt’s Dreamland Japan. It’s a picture of three schoolboys — one holding a sword, one playing a flute, and one cocking a baseball bat — from Maruo’s Itoshi no Showa (My Beloved Showa Era). Each of the boys represents a different period in modern Japanese history (the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa eras, respectively), and at the end of the story, when a new “sibling” is born into their family, “they take off their masks and reveal themselves as monsters.” Schodt goes on to quote critic Inuhiko Yomota, who characterizes Maruo’s style as “a museum of 20th-century kitsch art” for the way in which Maruo synthesizes Nazi symbolism, traditional Japanese woodblock prints, and Taisho and Showa-era graphic design into a coherent visual language.

I think that “museum” metaphor is an apt way to describe Furuya’s style as well. In Short Cuts, for example, he proved that he could mimic just about any manga-ka’s style in service of a good joke; he pokes fun at Leiji Matsumoto and Osamu Tezuka with beautifully drawn panels that not only reproduce the characters from Galaxy 999 and Astro Boy, but also the sensibility of those comics — the linework, the density of images, the application of screentone. In Lychee Light Club, Furuya does something similar with Maruo’s work, though the prevailing spirit is different: the character designs, extreme violence, and “unmasking” of the boys in the final act of the story seem like explicit homage to Maruo, rather than a playful jab at established masters.

David: That’s so interesting, and it helps some things click for me. I think I noticed a similar kind of curatorial bent in Furuya’s Palepoli strips in Secret Comics Japan. I always find creators more interesting when they have a wider frame of reference, so to see Furuya fusing theatrical conventions and Maruo homage with his own sensibility is very satisfying, in a way. I just feel like artists are almost always automatically better when they have interests beyond their specific creative spheres and when they can drawn on these interests to inform their work while still maintaining their specific point of view. The ability to synthesize a range of elements from all over high and low culture while still creating something unique is quite impressive to me.

Of course, if it’s in service of fairly repulsive material, that may not be enough to salvage the reading experience. It did for me, but I certainly understand that it probably won’t for many, many people. Which brings me to a tricky question: to whom would you recommend this book, if you would recommend it at all? It’s interesting to me that Vertical would publish a book like this. There’s certainly been no shortage of aggressively shocking material in their other releases (Felipe Smith’s Peepo Choo and Tezuka’s MW and Ayako come to mind), but Lychee Light Club seems to be on a different taste plane altogether.

Kate: Good question — and one I feel unqualified to answer, since a formulation as glib as “fans of Suehiro Maruo’s work!” only addresses a tiny fraction of Lychee Light Club‘s potential audience. But if I had to take a stab at recommending it, I’d say it would be of interest to anyone who was intrigued by the darker stories in AX: An Alternative Manga Anthology (e.g. Kaizuichi Hanawa’s “Six Paths of Wealth”).

David: I think that’s an excellent answer. I like it even better because I don’t have an answer of my own.

On the subject of marketing, I noticed an intriguing tag line in Vertical’s house ad for Jiro Matsumoto’s Velveteen and Mandala, which asserted that “the manga renaissance continues.” I quite liked that sentiment, particularly as it relates to Vertical’s catalog. It’s ambitious, and not every book is right for every reader, but Vertical does make very ambitious choices, and their selection does have something for many different demographics, from kids who like funny cats to hardcore otaku.


From the stack: Ai Ore! vol. 1

Who could have predicted that the comic I read this week that really made my skin crawl wasn’t Usumaru Furuya’s Lychee Light Club (Vertical)? No, that dubious honor goes to Mayu Shinja’s Ai Ore! (Viz). It manifests the kind of dreadful sexual politics I secretly hoped for from The Beautiful Skies of Hou Ou High, providing a handy reminder that one should always be careful about the wishes one makes.

It begins with an all-girl rock band losing its lead singer and the subsequent application of a boy for the vacant spot in the line-up. The band members are all sexy and androgynous, and they’re idols at their all-girl high school. The would-be singer is delicate and feminine, and his classmates have declared him the princess of their all-boy academy. Mizuki, the de facto leader of Blaue Rosen, is reluctant to admit Akira to the band. She doesn’t think she’s particularly fond of guys, but Akira is persistent. In fact, he’s creepily persistent. One might even say he doesn’t take no for an answer.

His desire to join the band is driven mostly by his obsession with Mizuki, and her repeatedly expressed disinterest doesn’t really penetrate Akira’s disconcerting determination. He’s one of those “just a matter of time” love interests who keeps acting like the girl’s already fallen for him (or that she doesn’t have a say in the matter). In spite of her formidable demeanor, Mizuki can’t seem to effectively fend off Mizuki’s persistent advances. Worse still, and obviously, she doesn’t really want to.

This is the part where I start ranting like an old prude, but dynamics like this really bother me. I hate the whole “I know what you want better than you do” précis, and I think it sends a horrible message. I really hate unwanted physical affection being presented as romantic or, even worse, cute. I hate when female characters are repeatedly put in peril so their stalker love interests can save them and look marginally better by comparison. And I hate Akira.

I find him repulsive. Part of this is due to the way that Shinja draws him. She’ll give Akira close-ups, narrated by Mizuki talking about how cute or ardent he looks. I think he looks demented in these panels, but maybe I’m just projecting my interpretation of his behavior on his appearance. It’s certainly partly because of the horrible lines he uses on Mizuki. (“Instead of singing about love, drown yourself in me.” “I came to take advantage of… your sadness, Mizuki-Chan.” “Don’t  you like me licking you?”) But mostly it’s just his obnoxious, menacing behavior. His final acts of the volume go so far beyond the pale that the second should begin with him being sent to jail.

Listen, I’m not naive enough to think that this kind of thing doesn’t have its audience, and I certainly don’t think that I’m going to make any difference by bitching about it. But when my primary response to a romantic narrative is “Nobody who actually loves you would treat you that way,” then it seems worth noting, at least for the record.

(Based on a review copy provided by the publisher.)


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.