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.

 

Random weekend question: on your mark, get set…

This may be in kind of poor taste, but I realize I’ve never asked this or discussed it much. In light of this week’s gross attempt to take advantage of fans of much-missed manga publisher Go! Comi, I was wondering which of their unfinished titles you’d most like to see rescued by another imprint?

For me, it would have to be Crown, written by Shinji (Sukeban Deka) Wada and illustrated by You (Cantarella, Ludwig II) Higuri. It was such a pleasantly ridiculously surprise, and it displayed a real gift for the sneaky tease. (I wonder if Kodansha Comics is going to pick up Night Head Genesis, which Higuri drew for George Iida?)

 

MMF: After School Nightmare

Sean (A Case Suitable for Treatment) Gaffney is hosting the current Manga Moveable Feast, which is focusing on Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare. Looking back on this column I wrote for The Comics Reporter, I realize I don’t really have anything to add, so I will lazily reprint the column here.

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In a lot of manga aimed at an adolescent audience, the characters’ objectives are sunny and straightforward. Do your best! Be true to yourself! Learn! Grow! Befriend! Love! You can dress those objectives up however you like and contextualize them in sports or sorcery or pop stardom, but the bottom line is basically the pursuit of happiness.

What makes a book like Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare (Go! Comi) so alluring is that it’s about the aversion of unhappiness. The objectives here are just as straightforward, but they’re bleaker and probably more honest. Keep your secrets. Hide your flaws. Try not to hurt anyone more than you can avoid, but a teen’s got to do what a teen’s got to do.

Mizushiro’s introduction to the English-reading audience came courtesy of Tokyopop in the form of the two-volume X-Day. It’s not a bad little book, but it suffers from inflated expectations. The synopsis promises a plot by moody loners to blow up their school, but the reality is much more subdued. It’s a dysfunctional character study, and it has its moments, but it ends up feeling like an old After School Special. Everyone learns a valuable lesson, which is rather disappointing.

But in X-Day, Mizushiro did demonstrate the will to go to dark places, and the book’s promise is fulfilled in After School Nightmare. Go! Comi tagged the ten-volume series with the line, “This dream draws blood!” It does, both figuratively and literally.

Mashiro Ichijo is an upstanding student. He works hard, he’s polite to his classmates, and he’s in the kendo club. He also has a vagina, but that’s a well-kept secret. It may not stay that way after Mashiro is enrolled in a special class by the school nurse. One day a week, Mashiro reports to the infirmary to drowse into a dream world where he must battle his classmates for a mysterious key that leads to an even more mysterious graduation.

Mashiro’s paranoid protectiveness of his public persona becomes heightened as he tries to determine which of his classmates are joining him on the subconscious battlefield. An aggressive kendo team-mate, Sou Mizuhashi, claims he knows Mashiro’s secret. Mashiro is simultaneously attracted and repulsed by what he perceives to be Sou’s uncomplicated masculinity, and Sou demonstrates a kind of unsentimental attraction for Mashiro in return.

Mashiro’s feelings for sweet, sunny Kureha Fujishima are no less complicated. He knows Kureha’s in the class, frozen in a traumatic moment from her childhood, and he wants to protect her. (It’s what a real man would do, after all.) Mashiro’s ambiguous gender allows Kureha to return his feelings; he’s not entirely male, so he’s not the object of terror she finds most men to be. But are Mashiro’s feelings sincere, or is he just role-playing, trying to meet ingrained expectations? That’s a question you could ask of any of the principle characters.

Mizushiro gets terrific mileage out of the question, spinning the love triangle over most of the ten-volume series. Mashiro, Kureha and Sou are all trying to reconcile their respective damage, and to varying degrees they do that by modulating to meet the expectations of others. But Mizushiro doesn’t romanticize that; secrecy and denial are the obstacles to the characters’ forward motion towards whatever graduation entails. They have to accept what they don’t like or what they fear about themselves. They have to stop caring how others see them.

It’s less her story than Mashiro and Sou’s, but I found Kureha mesmerizing from beginning to end. She represents a number of overly familiar character types — the pony-tailed princess, the unwitting beard, and the victim who’s never healed properly — but she doesn’t embody any of them. She’s too sturdy, surprising, and strange. And while Mashiro and Sou waffle and flail (entertainingly, I should add), Kureha evolves. And she does so without losing any of her radiance. If anything, she gains in radiance, especially in the dream sequences.

As to those subconscious throw-downs, do you remember those occasional sequences where the X-Men’s Danger Room would malfunction, plunging one or more mutants into a personally resonant horror? It’s like that, except every Thursday. Mizushiro is playing with allegories throughout the series, but she doesn’t shy away from brutality. After School Nightmare is one of the few shôjo series I’ve seen with sequences that could be scored with a Pat Benetar song.

Even with ten volumes at her disposal, Mizushiro finds room for so much. In addition to the emotional and metaphysical violence, there’s a lot of tenderness here. Not much sentiment, but that’s welcome. All she needs are three messed-up people trying to survive.

Fond farewells from 2009

The words “final volume” are always a bit bittersweet. While one can eagerly anticipate emotional closure and the tying up of narrative threads, there’s the misty-eyed knowledge that you won’t be paying any new visits to favorite characters and absorbing scenarios. I already mentioned two concluded series yesterday (Kaoru Mori’s Emma and Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket), but here are some other admirable titles that bid farewell in 2009.

Astral Project, written by marginal, illustrated by Syuji Takeya, four volumes published by CMX. This series was always difficult to summarize, and that’s almost always a sign of a series I’ll enjoy. Part mystery, part science fiction, part scathing satire, part romance, part family drama, part primer on obscure jazz appreciation, and so on, Astral Project managed to juggle its many different aims with nothing quite so showy as aplomb. There’s nothing self-congratulatory about the book’s density of ideas; they’re never underlined or followed with exclamation points. They’re just there, emerging and recurring when they can do the most good or spark the most interest. A great and under-appreciated title.

Flower of Life, written and illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga, four volumes published by Digital Manga. You know what’s weird about Yoshinaga? The bittersweet knowledge that a series will inevitably conclude starts when the license for said series is announced. The certainty of how lovely her comics will be is accompanied by the knowledge that they won’t be nearly long enough. Flower of Life, which follows a group of high-school students through that titular phase, is as funny as it is touching. Every time I post something close to a “Best of” list, I realize that I’ve forgotten something essential, and since the final volume of this series was released in 2009, I hasten to add it to my list of suggested nominees for the Best Publication for Teens Eisner.

Future Lovers, written and illustrated by Saika Kunieda, two volumes published by Deux Press. You wouldn’t think that two volumes were enough to make one particularly mournful of a title’s conclusion, but yaoi series tend to run shorter than those in other categories, and Future Lovers is just that good. It has the distinction of being one of the best comics about gay people I’ve ever read, which is remarkable for a category that doesn’t routinely concern itself with the realities of sexual orientation. It’s also a splendid romance with terrific characters that inhabit a richly realized context of work, family, friends, and personal history.

Kitchen Princess, written by Natsumi Ando, illustrated by Miyuki Kobayashi, ten volumes published by Del Rey. I have a well-documented lack of resistance for cooking manga, along with equally well-documented weaknesses for sparkly shôjo and desserts of almost every variety. So I was a natural audience member for this title. What surprised me was how emotionally lacerating it would become. It took Ando and Kobayashi a while to really start putting their characters through the ringer, but when they did, it elevated the title from sweet and diverting to something really absorbing and memorable. And it’s hard to go wrong with a comic that offers recipes.

Parasyte, written and illustrated by Hitoshi Iwaaki, eight volumes published by Del Rey. Manga as a category offers a rich vein of substantial, thought-provoking science fiction, and Parasyte is an excellent example. Lots of titles ask what it means to be human, and many ask that question in interesting ways. Parasyte certainly does, and it doesn’t skimp on the blood-soaked, pulse-pounding action in the process. It also doesn’t ignore the pulpy absurdity of its premise, sprinkling rueful humor throughout. And it pays keen attention to the emotional evolution of its characters, whether they’re a human teen-ager or a carnivorous parasite trying to figure out its place in the world.

Now, for two series which both debuted and concluded in 2009 but are worthy of mention all the same:

A Distant Neighborhood, written and illustrated by Jiro Taniguchi, two volumes published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon. Does the notion of exploring the middle-aged malaise of a straight man trigger one of your reader defense mechanisms? That’s a perfectly reasonable response, but there are always exceptions to these aversions. It’s about a salaryman who finds himself replaying a critical phase of his own adolescence, and, as Kate Dacey notes, it’s “one of the most emotional, most intimate stories Taniguchi’s ever told.”

The Lapis Lazuli Crown, written and illustrated by Natsuna Kawase, two volumes published by CMX. As I’ve noted previously, someone at CMX has a real knack for finding sweet (but not cloying), cute (but not pandering), quirky (but not outlandish) shôjo titles for its catalog. This year saw the arrival and departure of Kawase’s endearing fantasy about a young girl who wants to learn how to use her rather random magical powers and finds an ally in the prince of her Epcot-ian kingdom. Kawase’s polished art enhances this entirely pleasant romantic fantasy.

So what are some of your favorite concluding series of 2009?

Updated: After School Nightmare, written and illustrated by Setona Mizushiro, ten volumes published by Go! Comi. Maybe it’s a sign of how strong this year was overall, or maybe I’m just an airhead. Whatever the cause, I can’t believe I forgot After School Nightmare on this list, seeing as it’s one of my favorite series of all time. A complex psychological drama, this follows a group of teenagers into a dreamscape where they battle for identity, not to mention the drama this imposes on their waking hours. Excellent in so many ways, this series is worth the price of admission for cute-on-the-outside Kureha’s fascinating character arc and gradual empowerment.

Upcoming 11/11/2009

In her look at this week’s comics, Kate Dacey delivers a succinct takedown of the latest example of that just-won’t-die-or-evolve artifact, the list of recommendations to help comics fans convince the ladies in their lives to share their hobby. I don’t really have anything to add, but I will just note that most of the women I know online who read manga are omnivores. They greet new romantic shôjo and new blood-and-guts seinen with equal enthusiasm. To my way of thinking, this makes the frequent exclusion of manga from these chick-bait graphic novel guides even more baffling.

Anyway, here’s what looks good to me on the latest ComicList:

I read a review copy of Tamio Baba’s Deka Kyoshi (CMX), about a detective going undercover as a teacher, joining forces with a mildly psychic student, and helping kids with their often dangerous problems. My reaction to the book tracks pretty much exactly with Brigid Alverson’s: “The stories are nice little self-contained dramas, but they never veer far from the predictable.”

UltimateVenus5It seems to be a week where publishers who’ve had something of a low profile lately deliver some new goods. There are new volumes from DrMaster, Seven Seas, and Go! Comi. I’m most enthusiastic about the Go! Comi offering, the fifth volume of Takako Shigematsu’s Ultimate Venus. It’s about an orphan who learns that she’s the granddaughter of a very wealthy, very formidable woman, and must prove her worth to inherit the family fortune. I can’t say I yet love it in the way that I loved Shigematsu’s Tenshi Ja Nai!!, but I loved that series a lot and heartily recommend it to people who like wacky, mean-spirited romantic comedy. Ultimate Venus is a bit tamer, but it’s still very enjoyable.

Viz finally rolls out a VizBig version of Rumiko Takahashi’s long-running, much-loved InuYasha, which is a welcome development for people who might enjoy the anime but be a bit daunted by the 42 existing volumes of the manga.

ikigami3Of more specific interest to me is the third volume of Motoro Mase’s Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit, from Viz’s Signature line. Though I’m ambivalent about the series overall, I’ve liked it enough to review the first and second volumes of this series about a draconian government program that targets random people for death to help the remainder of the citizenry better appreciate life. A government functionary must notify these unlucky learning tools of their fate, and readers get to watch the victims flip out during their last hours. I still feel like it needs to go somewhere beyond episodic individual drama, but I’m intrigued enough to stick around. And the third volume has an awesome tag line: “Sometimes people do shoot the messenger.”

What if you could bring your cat to school? What if you and your cat were given amazing powers, and all you had to do in exchange was keep horrible demons at bay? These are the central questions addressed by Yuji Iwahara’s Cat Paradise (Yen Press). The second volume is due out on Wednesday and promises more mystery and adventure at a purportedly feline-friendly institute of learning.

catparadise2

It's the humidity

crownshower

That’s the way, totally improbable mercenaries. Freshen up from the August heat and conserve our precious natural resources at the same time. This week’s Flipped offers more suggestions on how to wile away these last few sweltering weeks of summer.

Previews review May 2009

ookuI was looking through the new Previews and thinking, “Y’know, there isn’t really a whole lot of new stuff here.” Then I got to page 292 and HOLY CRAP, THE FIRST VOLUME OF FUMI YOSHINAGA’S ÔOKU SHIPS FROM VIZ, HOLY CRAP, HOLY CRAP, HOLY CRAP.

It was exactly like that, I swear to you. The cats still think I’ve gone insane.

Anyway, if you aren’t familiar with Yoshinaga, she’s the insanely gifted creator of smart, funny, sexy stories like Antique Bakery, Flower of Life, Ichigenme: The First Class Is Civil Law, and a bunch of other stuff that’s already available in English. If anything can convince you of how awesome she is, it’s the fact that Ôoku tied with Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life for this year’s Grand Prize in the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prizes. Tezuka… Tatsumi… Yoshinaga… Convinced?

In other new-stuff news, Raw Junior LLC offers a new hardcover book by Jeff Smith called Little Mouse Gets Ready (page 278). “A new book by Jeff Smith” of Bone and Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil fame would be enough for both people, but this one sounds adorable.

And okay, not a ton of new product is on display, but there are plenty of new volumes of appealing continuing series to enjoy:

  • 20th Century Boys volume 4, written and illustrated by Naoki Urasawa (Viz): Kenji is wearing a pink bunny suit on the cover. MUST… KNOW… WHY… (Page 292.)
  • Astral Project volume 4, written by marginal and illustrated by Syuji Takeya (CMX): The final volume of this intriguing metaphysical mystery. (Page 124.)
  • Bride of the Water God volume 4, written and illustrated by Mi-Kyung Yun (Drak Horse): Another episode of “Gossip Gods,” gorgeously illustrated. (Page 54.)
  • Kitchen Princess volume 10, written by Miyuki Kobayashi and illustrated by Natsumi Ando (Del Rey): Baked goods and heartbreak. (Page 240.)
  • Nodame Cantabile volume 16, written and illustrated by Tomoko Hayakawa (Del Rey): Funky, funny josei about music students. (Page 242.)
  • Parasyte volume 8, written and illustrated by Hitoshi Iwaaki (Del Rey): I think this is the last volume. Aww, look! Shinichi and Migi are waving goodbye! (Page 242.)
  • Ultimate Venus volume 6, written and illustrated by Takako Shigematsu (Go! Comi): Cute orphan navigates the shark-infested waters of her cougar grandma’s plush empire. (Page 249.)
  • Upcoming 3/25/2009

    Have you ever had a trip planned and held off on bulking up an online book order because you thought, “Hey, there’s a great comic shop in (destination city), so surely I’ll be able to find (titles of books) there”? And then struck out completely? Or is that just me? Ah well. On to this week’s ComicList:

    While the name of the protagonists are a bit odd (“Diamond”? “Rock”? Seriously? I feel like composing an SAT question.), I like the sound of Momoko Tenzen’s Manhattan Love Story (Juné). It’s about grown-up gay men with jobs, and you know I can rarely resist such comics, when I can find them. The cover is really striking too.

    Drawn & Quarterly releases Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s massive biographical work, A Drifting Life, on Wednesday. It’s likely to be one of the books of the year, and certainly of the week.

    For some well-written, slightly old-fashioned shôjo, look no further than the fifth volume of Yuu Asami’s A.I. Revolution (Go! Comi). It’s kind of like Absolute Boyfriend, except it doesn’t make your skin crawl.

    Vertical continues to feed my sick fascination with creeply little Pinoko with the fourth volume of Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack.

    And Viz slakes my thirst with the second volume of Oishinbo, the standard-bearer of culinary manga. This volume focuses on sake. In my experience, alcohol and journalists go together like peanut butter and chocolate, so this volume should be fun, even though I haven’t cared much for the sake I’ve tried.

    Results, rewards, Re:

    Deb Aoki has begun the results phase of her annual manga polls over at About.Com, starting with 2008’s visitor-selected Best New Shojo Manga. Honestly, I’d have been happy with any of the top three claiming titles first place, as I think they’re all fine series. But there’s a lot of crack in this category, so I’m not surprised that it provided a strong slate.

    Deb also points to a contest being sponsored by Go! Comi to help introduce readers to guilty-pleasure priestess You Higuri.

    Sometimes, all it takes is a partial e-mail title to send my hopes skyrocketing out of all proportion. I open my in-box and see “Digital Manga Publishing acquires classic shojo title:”. What is it? The Rose of Versailles? The Poe Clan? Well, no, it’s Itazura Na Kiss by Kaoru Tada, which sounds like fun, but I did have a breathless moment there before I could click the message open.

    The full press release on the book is after the jump.

    [Read more...]

    Upcoming 1/2/2009

    A few items from this week’s ComicList:

    Most of the post-New Year’s love comes from Del Rey. There’s the second volume of Akira Hiramoto’s Me and the Devil Blues, an odd but successful blend of Faust and Behind the Music that extrapolates wildly on the murky biography of Robert Johnson. Then there’s the seventh volume of Ai Morinaga’s very funny My Heavenly Hockey Club, sports shôjo happily divorced of anything resembling athleticism or romance.

    But I feel like pointing a spotlight at the fourth volume of Ryotaro Iwanaga’s Pumpkin Scissors, because I think it’s a fine series that deserves a larger audience. It follows a quirky but good-hearted military group focused on relief and recovery, society’s and their own. The art is a little shaky and the script could be a bit more fluid, but the characters are great, particularly ass-kicking noblewoman Alice Malvin. She’s carrying the family’s military tradition in a thankless, never-ending job, and she’s doing it with a winning blend of idealism and pragmatism.

    I have a soft-spot for You Higuri, she of the tawdry, boys’-love flavored costume dramas, so I’m naturally inclined to give her new series, Crown (Go! Comi) a look. It looks like a contemporary take on her usual interests – slightly-too-close siblings and hunky bodyguards.