Fruits Basket MMF: Triangles

There are many evolving relationships in Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket (Tokyopop), familial and romantic. There’s the central love triangle consisting of brave and virtuous Tohru, princely Yuki, and black-sheep (or cat) Kyo. There’s the whole Sohma nightmare, with head of the family Akito trying to keep everyone’s relationships within and beyond the family under control, or at least unstable enough that they’ll never challenge the bonds of those who share the curse that helps drive the manga’s plot.

Of course, I’ve never been one to take sides in triangles. Few of them are especially plausible to me, because most of them require all choices be equal, which obviates the difficulty of choice (at least in a fictional context). In Fruits Basket, the putative triangle is so hopelessly stacked in the favor of one character that Takaya spends almost half of the series constructing consolation prizes for the odd man out. (It’s a generous impulse.)

But if the romantic geometry is a non-starter, there’s a different kind of triad that I love dearly, as illustrated below:

Love triangles may do nothing for me, but enduring platonic friendships put a lock on my attention as few other emotional dynamics can. That’s why I’m so crazy about Tohru’s never-say-die bond with former gang-girl Arisa Uotani and spooky psychic Saki Hanajima. Beyond being a nicely constructed blend of personality types – sweet, rambunctious, and eerie – Takaya makes their dynamic credible. It takes a while, but we learn how Tohru bonded with Uotani, and then Hanajima.

We also learn that Tohru’s mother, former gang-girl Kyoko, was central to these friendships. It’s a legacy of her loving bond with Tohru, that Tohru was able to extend those feelings to people who are so different from herself. It could be argued that Tohru’s ability to achieve such a rapport with Uotani and Hamajima proves that she can get through to anyone, even a creepy family that’s been cursed for centuries.

But that would diminish the pleasure of the friendship for its own sake. Takaya tries to insert a number of high-school mayhem into the narrative (when not expertly assaying family dysfunction), and very little of it works. Yuki’s fan club, the stupid student council, and so on… all of these aspects land with something of a thud, and it’s probably partly because Uotani and Hanajima are so eccentric and authentic at the same time, and their affection for Tohru is so sincere. Everything else that happens in the classroom feels like play-acting compared to this inseparable trio.


MMF: Why Fruits Basket?

With almost every installment of the Manga Moveable Feast, we tend to ask the question, “Why this particular title?” In the case of Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket, published in English over the course of 23 volumes by Tokyopop, I think the answer is complex.

First of all, it’s almost always interesting to dig into a cultural phenomenon. In the period between the initial English-language publication of Sailor Moon by Tokyopop and its upcoming republication by Kodansha, Fruits Basket was the most commercially successful shôjo manga and one of the most commercially successful manga, period.

Many people have made the argument that romantic fantasy for a female audience tends to be critically undervalued. Commercially successful romantic fantasy for a female audience adds another potential disclaimer for a book’s artistic value. Fruits Basket wasn’t just primarily for girls, but girls liked it a lot. And they bought as many copies of it as boys did of manga they liked. What’s that about? Or, at least that sometimes seems like the psychological subtext.

And Fruits Basket, which originally ran in Hakusensha’s Hana to Yume, is difficult to quantify. It’s shares a number of qualities with more generic manga of its category – an optimistic but kind of dingbat heroine, two hunky boys engaged in a rivalry for her attentions, a seemingly cutesy curse, and so on. But Takaya approaches that material with quite a bit of craft and emotional ruthlessness. She doesn’t brutalize her characters (or her readers), but she doesn’t spare them much. It’s not a creepy, “suffering and terror are hot” kind of approach; it’s more of a fluid, applied grasp of the nature of tragedy. Fruits Basket has scale. If the aesthetic were less contemporary-casual, the Takarazuka Revue could operetta up this sprawling epic.

It takes a while for things to fall into place, to be honest. Initially, the series seems like what its cover blurb describes: a story about a plucky orphan who moves in with a family of hot guys who are living under a curse! They turn into animals represented in the Chinese Zodiac when they’re hugged by someone of the opposite sex! Eventually, though, the cutesy sheen of the curse gives way to the profound dysfunction and deep, deep pain of the Sohma family. And the ditsy charm of Tohru Honda, the outsider in the tearstained zoo, resolves into resolve and force and generosity of spirit.

I hope you’ll give a few volumes a try. My plan for the week is to focus on some of my favorite moments from the series and to keep a running tally of each day’s posts, if posts there are. I’m looking forward to the contributions of anyone who cares to do so.

Previous Manga Moveable Feasts:


Random weekend question: critical condition

As I prepare for the Manga Moveable Feast featuring Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket (Tokyopop), one nagging thought keeps slightly tinging the pleasure of revisiting the series. I always felt that Fruits Basket was critically under-appreciated. Sure, the series always had its partisans who approached it with the seriousness I felt it deserved, but, on the whole, it seemed like it got dismissed as cute romance, which it stopped being about halfway through the third volume. That critical response might have been because of its demographic, and it might also have been because of its commercial success. (I think there’s a natural and often correct implication to look at an entertainment that makes a lot of money and be suspect of its likely quality. Still, there are plenty of examples of things that are both wildly popular and really good.)

So, for this random weekend question, which comics do you think are critically under-appreciated? What books do you think don’t get the admiration they deserve?

(As a reminder, the Fruits Basket Manga Moveable Feast will run from Sunday, July 24, 2011, through Saturday, July 30, 2011. If you’d like for me to host a piece here, I’d be more than happy to do so.)


Upcoming 7/13/11

I generally like to highlight different titles in the Manga Bookshelf Pick of the Week and in these trawls through the ComicList, but sometimes I just have to repeat myself.

Even if this week didn’t mark the inaugural Pick of the Week contribution of Sean (A Case Suitable for Treatment) Gaffney, I’d still be in lockstep with his choice, the fourth collection (containing the eighth and ninth volumes) of Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game from Viz Media. Viz is publishing some other perfectly likeable manga this week, but it’s hard for anything not to pale in comparison to Cross Game. To avoid repeating myself, I’ll simply link to myself: here are my reviews of the first, second, and third collections, and here’s my contribution to the Cross Game Manga Moveable Feast.

Speaking of Manga Moveable Feasts, you all know that I’m hosting the July installment on Natsuki Takaya’s transcendent Fruits Basket (Tokyopop), right? The feast will start on Sunday, July 24, and end on Saturday, July 30. I’d be happy to host pieces here, if that would work better for you. Just drop me a line.

And, speaking of critical examination of manga, there’s a jam-packed edition of Bookshelf Briefs for your perusal. I take an look at Natsume Ono’s La Quinta Camera and a feels-belated look at the second Kekkaishi 3-in-1 collection by Yellow Tanabe. Most importantly, Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey reads the second volume of Ai Ore! so I don’t have to. EVER.


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.


Upcoming 6/29/2011

Yes, I admit that the Manga Bookshelf crew took a look at the Midtown Comics list and abstained from voting, but the ComicList is always at least somewhat different, and there are two items I wanted to mention.

Isn’t it nice to have a publisher you can blindly trust to publish books that are always worth your scrutiny? I find Fanfare/Ponent Mon to fall into that category, so I ordered Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s Farm 54 without really knowing a single thing about it. It’s an autobiographically informed coming-of-age story set in Israel in the 1970s.

Nobody would ever accuse me of blindly trusting Tokyopop, and the use of the word “maid” in the title of a manga is usually enough to send me running in the other direction, but the readers spoke, so I dutifully ordered the first (and possibly only) volume of Maid Shokun, written by Nanki Satou and illustrated by Akira Kiduki. While I haven’t allowed myself to read his full review, so as not to color anything I may write about the book, I’m relieved to hear that Sean (A Case Suitable for Treatment) Gaffney found the book much better than he had expected it would be. This is one of the two preferred outcomes of crowd-sourced comic ordering: a pleasant surprise, or something much worse than even my fevered imagination could predict.

In other Manga Bookshelf news, we’ve offered our views on a variety of relatively recent releases in the latest installment of Bookshelf Briefs. Is anyone else ready for the Straw Hats to come back, or is it just me?

MMF: Likeability

Note: This is the first thing I wrote about Wild Adapter from way back when I was doing Flipped columns for Comic World News. Usually I look at these old things and am visited with an urge to rewrite them from top to bottom, but I stand by every word of this one.

When storytellers devote a lot of narrative space to supporting characters extolling the virtues of their protagonists, it’s reasonable to suspect there isn’t a lot there. That kind of cheerleading can come across an unconvincing hard sell by a creator who suspects on some level that they haven’t provided enough reasons for the audience to reach a favorable opinion on their own.

Most of the cast of Kazuya Minekura’s Wild Adapter pause to muse on the intriguing qualities of Makoto Kubota, the mahjong-loving weirdo at the story’s center. In this case, they have reason, because he’s fascinating. But, then, fictional sociopaths generally are.

Kubota isn’t an especially malevolent sociopath; he’s not a Hannibal Lecter. But he views humankind with blithe, self-serving curiosity rather than empathy. He seems susceptible to neither anger nor warmth, and his interactions are driven by either self-preservation or their potential for amusement. He neatly sums up his worldview in an early chapter after he’s won a leadership position with the yakuza equivalent of Junior Achievement: “It was him or me, and I always choose me.”

So why is he engrossing rather than loathsome? It’s partly due to his imperviousness to opinion, which comes across as genuine as opposed to a constructed posture to win approval. It’s indifference without malice or ulterior motive; he has his interests and his needs, and they really don’t involve other people.

He’s also funny. Even surrounded by a central-casting crowd of mobsters and whores, he doesn’t modulate his behavior in the slightest. He’s quirky, blunt and unpredictable. With the macho posturing and calculating seduction that are part and parcel of the yakuza milieu, it’s not surprising that Kubota makes an impression. He’s refreshing.

I know I’m going on and on about Kubota, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a creator pull off this kind of character as well as Minekura has here. I’ve seen plenty of storytellers try to invest an essentially unsympathetic character with charisma, and some even succeed, but Minekura absolutely nails it.

And liking Kubota, or at least being drawn to him, is absolutely central to liking Wild Adapter. As Minekura says in her closing notes, the first volume is essentially a prologue, allowing the reader to get to know Kubota and his world. There are hints of a plot (something involving a mysterious drug with the kind of side effects that don’t lend themselves to repeated use, so you know it isn’t a product of organized crime), but the volume’s primary function is introductory.

For me, it’s entirely successful. I’m sufficiently engrossed in Kubota to be fairly relaxed about where the plot might go. In a lot of manga I really like, I’ve noticed a high level of symbiosis between characters and the series they inhabit. Carefully crafting protagonists and taking pains to introduce them properly gives a narrative more weight than clever plot construction or instant momentum. (Look at Emma and Nana.) I get the sense that Wild Adapter is going to fit into that mold.

Attractive art never hurts, and Minekura provides. Unsurprisingly, I’m particularly taken with her character designs. There are strong shônen-ai elements to the story, but a cast of ridiculously beautiful boys isn’t one of them.

Minekura’s work is stylized, but her characters still look like people. Kubota’s coolness is more internal than aesthetic; he actually bears more than a passing resemblance to Madarame from Genshiken. Komiya, Kubota’s second-in-command, looks like a kid trying to appear tough, achieving an effect that’s an odd mixture of creepy and vulnerable. The supporting cast is delineated with similar care, even characters that are only around for a handful of pages.

Tokyopop seems to have spared less expense than usual with production. The book opens with some elegant plates with spot-color, and the paper quality is nice. Even better, the translation by Alexis Kirsch and adaptation by Christine Boylan make for very fluid reading. The attention to individual character voices is particularly welcome; it gives the world of the story extra layers.

I admit that when I first heard Wild Adapter described as a teen gangster drama with shônen-ai and science fiction overtones, I wasn’t particularly intrigued. Having read it repeatedly, with no diminishing returns in terms of enjoyment, I’m eager for more. Minekura has brought potentially outlandish story elements into service of a surprisingly nuanced, character-driven drama.


MMF: Bathtub manga

Whenever I think of Kazuya Minekura’s Wild Adapter (Tokyopop), an image pops into my mind: my bathtub. The water is hot and scented with some kind of mood-altering essential oil, possibly juniper, maybe rosemary, occasionally lavender. There is an alcoholic beverage perched on the edge of the tub to help me stay hydrated. And there is a volume of manga nearby.

Yes, I am a bathtub reader. It’s not my go-to hygiene technique, more an occasional indulgence. And, if you’re going to indulge, why not gild the experience? (My fondness for baths is such that I really, really want someone to license Mari Yamazaki’s Thermae Romae. Erica Friedman sent me the first two Japanese volumes, and I can’t read a character of the dialogue, but it looks terrific.)

Now, not just any manga will do. It needs to have a certain languid, moody quality. Ideally, it should be impregnated with feelings, even if those feelings are ambiguous. I love One Piece (Viz), but it is not bathtub manga. I’m impatient for the next volume of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse), but it is not bathtub manga. A new volume of Bunny Drop (Yen Press) cannot come soon enough, but even it is not bathtub manga. Wild Adapter is bathtub manga.

Why is that? Well, it’s partly because, empirically good and ambitious as Wild Adapter is, it doesn’t wear its quality on its sleeve. It gives you the opportunity to believe that you’re indulging in a guilty pleasure, even though you’re actually seeing a spectacular piece of craftsmanship. That, right there, is what makes manga bathtub manga for me.

So, in celebration of the current Manga Moveable Feast, I thought I’d list some other titles that may achieve their fullest entertainment potential when paired with bubbles and booze:

Antique Bakery by Fumi Yoshinaga (Digital Manga): It’s very, very difficult to pick just one of Yoshinaga’s works for this list, because she’s all about the appearance of effortlessness. She can go very dark places in her storytelling, and she does so routinely in work like Ôoku: The Inner Chambers (Viz), but you’ll rarely see her congratulating herself on her daring. Darkness is a part of life, and it can consume a moment without warning, which is certainly a recurring motif in Antique Bakery. Of course, the primary adjectives the series suggests are “funny” and “sexy,” and there are tons of illustrations of beautiful desserts.

Emma by Kaoru Mori (CMX): If there’s a mangaka better than Mori at dissecting a single, seemingly trivial moment and turning it into something telling and revealing, I’m hard-pressed to think of one. Aside from Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man (Fanfare/Ponent Mon), Emma may be one of the most leisurely manga I’ve ever encountered. There’s certainly a story here – a star-crossed romance between a domestic and a member of the emerging middle class – but it’s draped in such obsessive interest in the behaviors and values of the era in which its set that it scarcely matters if you find Emma and William’s relationship plausible or sympathetic. You can just lose yourself in the minutiae of their lives and still be really, really satisfied.

Genshiken by Kio Shimoku (Del Rey): A lot of nerd comedy is frantic and unfunny. Your average ugly duckling hero is thrown into humiliating misadventure, allowing the audience to laugh at them (and cringe at the parts of themselves that identify with the poor loser). That’s all well and good, and no one will ever go broke catering to the audience for that kind of material, but my nerd comedy of choice is pretty much embodied by Genshiken. I don’t think anyone would ever use the term “frantic” to describe it. It’s much more likely to be called “contemplative,” even “leisurely” and possibly “wistful.” Shimoku goes for neither shame comedy nor canonization with his cast of geeks. Instead, he takes them seriously as characters, which is to say he gives them highs and lows over a period of time and gives readers a clear and satisfying portrayal of their thoughts and feelings.

Nana by Ai Yazawa (Viz): Okay, the lead characters are sitting in a bathtub on the cover. A lesser blogger may simply rest his or her case based on the overwhelming evidence that image provides, but no! I will soldier on to say that it’s Yazawa’s facility for big, messy emotions writ achingly small and her feverish ability to convey a vibe that’s both stylish and strangely nostalgic that make Nana ideal for a good, long soak. She’s packed the book with fascinating, complex, sometime unlikable characters that interact in ways that are constantly surprising but make perfect sense. And, since they’re very often shown to be imbibing, you won’t have to drink alone.

Suppli by Mari Okazaki (Tokyopop): Of all the manga heroines who could use a good long soak in a buble-filled tub, I would have to rank Minami very near the top. She works too hard for an advertising agency that’s often unappreciative of her efforts. It would display an excess of delicacy to describe her love life as “messy.” And yet this manga is indulgent because it’s very beautifully drawn and because Minami’s trials feel so delicately true. She feels very much like someone you might know, and she’s definitely someone you wish well. And, since it seems likely that we may never see the remainder of this wonderful series, it’s nice to be someplace private where you can cry into your washcloth.

So, who’s with me? Are there any other bathtub manga readers out there? What are your titles of choice?


Fond memories

In the wake of yesterday’s sad news about Tokyopop, I thought I’d use this random weekend question to look back on the positive. Regardless of our individual opinions of the company and our varied reactions to its fate, it published some great comics during its run. So I’d like to ask what your favorite Tokyopop title was?

For me, the answer is surprisingly easy: Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss, a heartfelt and sophisticated look at the lives of budding designers and the girl who serves as their model and muse. This series was among those that really expanded my idea of what comics could be in terms of style, tone, and content, beyond being a wonderful and memorable story in its own right.

How about you? What Tokyopop title stands above the rest in your memory?


Upcoming 4/13/2011

My Manga Bookshelf Pick of the Week should surprise no one, but it’s hardly the only item of interest on the current ComicList, which is jam-packed.

It’s always worth noting when Drawn & Quarterly publishes a Japanese comic. This time, it’s the English-language debut of Shigeru (GeGeGe no Kitaro) Mizuki in the form of his semi-autobiographical Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, a tale of “the desperate final weeks of a Japanese infantry unit at the end of World War II.” I would note that this doesn’t sound like it’s in my usual wheelhouse, but Drawn & Quarterly manga seldom does, and I almost always end up being glad I read it or even liking it a great deal. I’m really, really looking forward to Mizuki’s Non Non Bâ, so this will be a nice warm-up.

In an almost certainly, possibly immeasurably lighter vein is the fourth book in Matthew Loux’s Salt Water Taffy series, Caldera’s Revenge. If you aren’t familiar with these quirky, funny comics, they feature a pair of brothers who spend a memorable summer in the surprisingly mysterious seaside town of Chowder Bay, where they encounter giant lobsters, restless spirits, and legendary eagles who steal hats. Just the kind of thing you would have wanted to distract you when you were stuck in the sticks with no television.

Tokyopop is kind enough to release new volumes of two of my favorite shôjo series: the sixth (and final) volume of Julietta Suzuki’s Karakuri Odette, and the 12th volume of Banri Hidaka’s V.B. Rose.

In other, non-Cross Game and, for that reason, lesser Viz news, there’s the second volume of Yuuki Iinuma’s Itsuwaribito, which seems like a series that could go somewhere interesting, though this volume didn’t particularly impress me.

What looks good to you?