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Off the Shelf: It’s all uphill…

MELINDA: Hi, I’m hungry. Gimme food.

MICHELLE: You can have one of the chicken thingies I’m fixin’ to eat.

MELINDA: Can I, really???

MICHELLE: Sure. I will put it in the mail tomorrow.

MELINDA: Hm. I foresee several issues here. Maybe we should just talk about manga. Got any?

MICHELLE: Indeed I do! This week I decided to check out two new series from Digital Manga Publishing, neither of which happens to be boys’ love. The results were mixed.

I’ll start with the weaker of the two, Arata Aki’s The Beautiful Skies of Houou High. Now, we’ve been doing this column for almost a year now, so I hope you (and the readers) will appreciate the rarity of the statement I am about to make.

This manga is bad.

I don’t mean bad in a trashy, fun way. I mean bad in a thoroughly muddled and possibly even offensive way. About the only words of praise I can summon are “some of the characters look cool… until they open their mouths.”

The basic premise is this: boyish lesbian Kei Saeba spends all her time chasing girls. Her mother would rather see her married off to some rich dude, so she contrives to send Kei off to an all-male boarding school. Kei is so dense she doesn’t notice anything amiss, even when the school has a different name than the one she thought she was going to. Once there, she spends a lot of time puking (guys gross her out) and trying to keep her gender under wraps, since the school director has essentially threatened her life if her secret gets out. What? Why? Later, he hires his precocious eleven-year-old nephews, who happen to be scientific geniuses, to attack her with poison needles. To “pressure” her. What? Why? This makes absolutely no sense!

When not dealing with this thoroughly mishandled attempt at a mysterious subplot, the story focuses on Kei’s exceedingly unfunny interactions with her classmates, who include a bully, an Otomen, and a masochist.

I’m just so disappointed. I mean, it’s not like I was excited for another story about a girl disguising her gender or anything, but the cover doesn’t look so bad, and the boyish protagonist looked kind of appealing. Too bad she’s dumber than a box of rocks.

MELINDA: I hardly know what to say. That sounds… just awful. First of all, what the hell, boys make her sick? What an offensive way to portray a lesbian teen. And on top of that, she’s basically being tortured? You know, a manga about the mistreatment of gay teens in school could be a really great manga, but when these kinds of things are tossed into a story that’s not taking them seriously, it’s just gross.

It took me almost twenty minutes to type that, I was so distressed. Argh. Carry on.

MICHELLE: She isn’t being mistreated by the boys because she’s gay—I don’t think anyone actually knows that besides her mother—but the director is supposed to have some sinister agenda or something and the bully just enjoys making people uncomfortable (his words). The series totally seems poised to head into irredeemably offensive. territory, but it’s not quite there yet. Still, I would not be at all surprised if, once guys lose their emetic effect, she ends up deciding she likes them after all. I think flames would literally shoot out of my eyeballs if that should happen. Not that I intend to keep reading.

Anyway, let’s speak of more pleasant things. What did you read this week?

MELINDA: Well, I guess I’ll start on a low note as well, and whaddaya know, it also involves gender-disguised teens! Yes, I’m talking about Mayu Shinjo’s Ai Ore!, from Viz’s Shojo Beat imprint.

Mizuki is a student at an all-girls’ high school, where her boyish good looks have worked their way into every girl’s heart. She’s also the guitarist in a girl-band that’s about to lose its lead singer. When cutie Akira wants to audition for the spot, Mizuki is shocked and horrified to find herself smitten. And she soon discovers why–Akira’s a boy!

While I’m not prepared to denounce this manga quite as completely as you did The Beautiful Skies of Houou High, I can’t really praise it either. There could be a great story in the romance between two teens who defy their society’s gender expectations, but this manga is really, really not it.

“Romance is difficult when everyone keeps mistaking Mizuki for a boy an Akira for a girl!,” claims the back cover copy. Romance is difficult how, exactly? Aside from making constant note of how cute Akira is and how handsome Mizuki is, and the way their classmates dote over them as though they were members of the opposite sex, the whole gender thing seems completely superfluous, to the point of being offensive.

Mizuki is emotionally flustered and afraid of Akira because he makes her feel all fluttery inside. Akira is super-protective of Mizuki and anxious to get her naked. There is no challenging of traditional gender roles anywhere in sight. If anything, this manga reinforces them, and not in a positive way at all. And if I never had to read another discussion of breast size in manga again, I’d be the happiest girl on earth.

On top of it all, the romance isn’t particularly enjoyable, with or without the gender stuff. Their attraction seems to be completely physical (without any real acknowledgement of that by the author, who paints it all as sweet, sweet love). Akira’s cute, but kind of a jerk, and Mizuki is so helpless and fragile, it was enough to send this reader screaming into the night.

This is a nice, chunky release–a double-volume at least–but unfortunately the substance is paper-thin. It’s a real disappointment.

MICHELLE: Oh, that’s too bad. I was hoping Ai Ore! would be fun. But smut is Mayu Shinjo’s gig (she’s the creator of Sensual Phrase, after all) so it seems like we’re in for more of the same. Although I haven’t read W Juliet, a VIZ release under the Shojo imprint, this story strikes me as being kind of similar. Probably W Juliet is the story you wish this one was!

MELINDA: Well, I’ve yet to see a lot of smut here. It’s mostly just tedious mooning around, though there are some pretty unbelievable sexcapades near the end of the volume. Still, that’s definitely not what’s offensive about the series. And yes, I do wish I was reading W Juliet! It sounds much more promising.

MICHELLE: Somewhat better, yes! The second new series from DMP that I checked out is Countdown 7 Days. This manga is by Karakara Kemuri, whose Takeru: Opera Susanoh Sword of the Devil (TOKYOPOP) was ever so much better than that cumbersome title would suggest, so I had fairly high hopes.

The story so far is intriguing, but a bit unpolished. Mitamura, an instructor at an afterlife school that teaches the dead what they need to know in order to be reincarnated, has chaperoned a model student’s day trip to our world and promptly lost sight of her. While he tries ineffectually to track her down, he runs into—literally, on a moped—the recently dead Hanasuke Onigawara. Mitamura promises Hanasuke that he will reveal a way for him to come back to life if Hanasuke agrees to help him track down the missing student. Hanasuke agrees, but there’s just one problem: no such method exists.

Eventually, the rebellious student is captured and all three of them go back to the afterlife, with Hanasuke enrolling in the school himself. But that’s not really the point. Actually, the whole story seems to be about reforming Mitamura, who is cold and callous and doesn’t seem to realize when he has hurt people. Hanasuke’s devastated reaction when he learns the truth honestly shocks Mitamura, but he is moved by his student’s fervent efforts to get him to value life more. (It appears he reminds her of her first love.) In the final chapter, there are hints of darker doings between the spirit and human world, which could be interesting, but I hope the series doesn’t forget about making its hero a little more human.

As a final note, Kemuri’s art is really lovely. I’m especially fond of Mitamura’s character design. Even if the story itself hasn’t quite found its footing, the aesthetics alone are worth a look.

MELINDA: This sounds like one of those stories that might be really flawed, but I’d still love them. I could be wrong, of course, but I admit I’m intrigued. Messy human beings (living or dead) are fascinating to me.

MICHELLE: When I was reading it, I seriously thought, “Melinda would like this.” Mitamura’s fun to look at and a character type one doesn’t see too often, so I’m looking forward to volume two to see how things develop.

What else have ya got?

MELINDA: Well, with the Eisner nominations out just last week, I thought this would be a great time to take a look at volume three of Nobuaki Tadano’s 7 Billion Needles, nominated this year for “Best Adaptation From Another Work.” This series was one of my picks for the 2010 Manga Bookshelf Gift Guide, and was a key player on the impressively strong roster of new series Vertical debuted last year.

In volume three, much of the focus shifts from Hikaru to the two warring aliens inside her who become aware of a growing number of mutations manifesting on earth. At one point this sort of god-like creature turns up, interested in the upcoming “macro-evolution” and wondering what the planet will ultimately look like, which is less fascinating than it sounds. To be honest, Tadano seems to be leading us down one of the series’ less compelling roads, at least for the moment. But even with all this, there’s so much good here.

And by “good” I mean “Hikaru.” Even on the sidelines, she’s still the heart of this series, worrying about an isolated classmate and willing to put herself on the line to try to save someone like her from going where she once did. And it’s Hikaru who provides hope that humanity might prevail in the upcoming evolutionary war. She’s the best of us, and I love the fact that she is, without having to be super-cheerful or always “doing her best.”

Tadano’s artwork is really a highlight in this volume, from expressive human faces to sci-fi gore. The art pulls us through, even in the story’s weakest moments, and with just one volume left, I’m on the edge of my seat.

MICHELLE: Vertical really has been releasing some awesome stuff this year! I didn’t manage a timely read of the first couple of volumes, so ended up deciding that I’d read the whole thing when the fourth and final volume comes out later this month.

I love what you said about Hikaru being kind of heroic despite not being perfect. It makes me much more interested to read about her story.

MELINDA: She’s definitely my favorite thing in the series, and there’s a lot to like overall. I should mention that the two aliens provide some winning moments in this volume as well, as they try to share Hikaru’s consciousness.

So, this column has shifted dramatically uphill since the first volume on the docket. Not a bad way to go!

MICHELLE: Ending on a high note is always good. But the real question is… did you find some food?

MELINDA: YES. And furthermore, my husband went out for donuts. I WIN.

MICHELLE: Wow. My repast was sadly lacking in donuts.

MELINDA: I’d send you one, but there’s that whole mail problem again. So…

MICHELLE: Yeah. Sigh.

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  1. The Beautiful Skies… did throw a lot of bizarre stuff out that didn’t make any sense. Where did all those subplots come from? A little explanation would have been nice. However, Kei isn’t a lesbian. She even says so herself. Now, whether that’s just the author’s attempt to not have a labeled homosexual in her story, or if she just doesn’t understand anything about GLBTs, that’s up for debate. In my review, I noted its similarity to Maria Holic, about another girl who is disgusted by men, but isn’t technically lesbian. Kei, even more so, isn’t, because it’s painfully obvious that this is a reverse harem romantic comedy. Her revulsion of guys won’t last (in fact, it kind of fades a little even in the first volume), and she’ll likely start falling for one of the main guys before long.

    Ai Ore! has a lot of problems, but I actually found it pretty amusing. Sometimes I can push the problems to the back of my mind if I find something else in the story to enjoy. I think there’s something in Ai Ore! that makes me want to read a bit more of it. But if it’s bad elements get worse, well even I have my limits.

    • I don’t remember Kei ever saying that she isn’t a lesbian. In fact, I seem to recall one space where she did refer to herself that way. I’d rather not log onto eManga from work to find the exact page, though. :)

      • Eh? Oh, you’re right! I don’t know why she said she wasn’t. I thought she told Yui she wasn’t. I guess I confused it. In fact, now that that’s cleared up in my head, I remember thinking “Does this creator really understand what being a lesbian is, or does the ~character~ not understand.”
        *smacks forehead*

        • The creator is treading pretty close to the “I like girls only because guys are icky” explanation for being a lesbian, which is quite offensive. She hasn’t said it outright, but I suspect it’s how she regards it.

        • Katherine Dacey says:

          I have the same problem with Beautiful Skies that I did with Maria Holic: their heroines are mocked for their interest in other girls. In both manga, there’s at least one male character whose chief mode of exercising his authority over the heroine is threatening to reveal her preferences. (If memory serves, the cross-dressing character in Maria Holic even threatens to rape Kanoko, though I could be misremembering that detail out of my general distaste for the series.) Regardless of whether the the female characters identify themselves as lesbians, there’s something so fundamentally mean-spirited about this kind of emotional blackmail that I just don’t find it funny.

          • Oh, god, your comment here reminds me that I actually forgot to mention one of the most hideous things in Ai Ore!—that at one point Akira enlists a schoolmate to rape a rival at Mizuki’s school. He seriously calls his friend and asks if he’d be willing to do that. And it’s set up like it’s funny.

      • For the record, it’s page 42. :)

  2. I am actually pretty looking forward to the first book of Mayu Shinjo’s Ai Ore!. I admit that I am not that into smutty, extra sexy shoujo as I used to be but I am interested in checking out more of the mangaka’s works. I have only read her Sensual Phrase and I have been wanting more of her works to get licensed. Ai Ore! might not be much but I am definitely interested in checking it out.


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