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Off the Shelf: Good Reads & Oddities

MICHELLE: I just ate an uncooked tortilla full of cheese.

MELINDA: I am eating bread stuffed with pepperoni.

MICHELLE: Assuming yours was actually cooked, I deem you the more sophisticated snacker. Shall we stop talking food and start talking manga?

MELINDA: Sure! I had a great week in manga, actually, with new volumes from two of my favorite creators arriving at my doorstep. It began with volume six of Ooku, Fumi Yoshinaga’s historical manga set in an alternate version of feudal Japan in which the male population has been nearly wiped out, leaving women to step into traditionally male roles.

This series has been fascinating from the start, and I’ve written quite a bit about it, especially in terms of the way it portrays a gender-reversed society that is essentially still patriarchal. This is still fascinating, but what really struck me in particular as I was reading this volume is just how much it reads like true history. Everything about this volume evokes a feeling of authenticity so strong, if I didn’t know anything about the history of Japan, I would absolutely believe it was non-fiction. That might not sound like a compliment, considering the quality of writing in a lot of non-fiction, but I absolutely mean it as such.

Every detail here, even the odd speech and awkward cadence, feels authentic. This is enhanced greatly by the strong sense, in this volume particularly, that everything here is far in the past, imbuing the story with an aura of inevitability I can’t quite describe. These events are fact, immutable and accepted by generations of people before us. That’s how the story feels.

The series gets pretty unsavory in places, and this volume is no exception there, but one experiences it with the same acceptance as one must when reading history. Even the ugliest moments are irrevocably part of the story’s time and place.

This may seem like a pretty simplistic observation, but really, it hadn’t hit me so strongly before this point. It honestly felt like a revelation of a sort.

MICHELLE: I wonder if that viewpoint will help me get past the hurdle of volume two. “Fictional cat, fictional cat,” I’ve been trying to tell myself. Maybe my mantra should be “Fictional cat a long, long time ago” instead.

MELINDA: Perhaps even “Real cat from a long time ago whose memory stays alive through poignant depiction of its fate.”

MICHELLE: That may be pushing it a bit.

MELINDA: Well then, moving on, what have you read this week? You know, that doesn’t involve an untimely feline death?

MICHELLE: Some interesting stuff, actually! As you might be aware, I’ve had some difficulty in pinpointing how I feel about Julietta Suzuki’s Kamisama Kiss. Each volume has been more or less enjoyable, yet I’ve remained disappointed.

I’m happy to report that the third volume has hopefully changed that. This has less to do with any alterations on Suzuki’s part, however, and more with one I made myself: I stopped waiting to be impressed. Because I liked Suzuki’s Karakuri Odette so much, I was waiting for her to transcend that series with this new one, and it just wasn’t happening. By volume three, this impulse had largely subsided and I was able to simply enjoy the series for what it is: an episodic supernatural sitcom.

Volumes two and three have established a pattern: Nanami goes to school and encounters some new supernatural hottie from whom Tomoe, her slightly grumpy but actually kind shinshi (familiar), must protect and/or rescue her. Volume three’s interloper is Mizuki, a shinshi whose master has disappeared due to lack of worshippers. He takes the form of a white snake, and when he randomly shows up at Nanami’s school in this guise, she prevents other students from harming him. He repays this favor by leaving a mark on her that means they are now engaged.

It’s gratifying to see Tomoe spurred to action on Nanami’s behalf, even as he tries to tell himself it’s only on account of his shinshi dignity, and they are both awakening to their feelings more swiftly than I’d expected. None of this is really new territory—the description “Black Bird Lite” would not be far off—but as long as one stops expecting some sort of innovation, it’s actually a pretty nice story.

MELINDA: Now, one of the things I liked about the first volume of this series, is that it didn’t contain any of the blatant misogyny so characteristic of Black Bird. Given that you’ve described it as a “Lite” version of that series, what should I expect? Has this changed?

MICHELLE: Oh, no, it hasn’t. I just meant you’ve got a heroine whom supernatural fellows seem to desire—though this is usually on account of her kami powers or her shrine and not because boffing her will convey some benefit—and who has yet another supernatural bishounen to protect her. Tomoe isn’t condescending towards Nanami, in fact he’s beginning to acknowledge her good qualities, and though she’s grateful for his help, it’s not in a creepy “you validate me” sort of way. I guess it’s more or less the premise that’s similar, but the character dynamics are much more tolerable in Kamisama Kiss.

MELINDA: Makes me want to pick up volumes two and three so I can catch up!

MICHELLE: You should! So, what else did you read this week?

MELINDA: Well, I also received a copy of Natsume Ono’s La Quinta Camera , due out next month. As you know, I’m a big fan of the author, so I snatched this up to read just as soon as it arrived.

La Quinta Camera (The Fifth Bedroom) peeks into the world of a five-bedroom apartment in Italy, which is occupied by four middle-aged men and a stream of disparate foreign students who temporarily occupy the apartment’s fifth room. The story begins with Charlotte, a Danish student who comes to Italy to study the language, and whose tumultuous entry into the country takes a turn for the better upon her arrival at the apartment. At first, it seems like this will be her story, but by the beginning of the second chapter, Charlotte is already moving out, and suddenly it’s obvious that the real story revolves around the apartment’s constants, rather than its revolving fifth room.

This is early Ono, and there’s no denying it. After reading later series like Ristorante Paradiso and House of Five Leaves, it’s a bit jarring to return to the simpler, less refined art style that characterized not simple. What really shows off this story’s youth, however, is its narrative shakiness. Even slice-of-life manga like this benefits from a strong thread to hold it together, and there’s not all that much here to do the trick.

That said, what is here is brilliant in its own way. Ono’s talent for quiet characterization truly shines, though perhaps even that is overshadowed by her gift for nuance, especially when it comes to human relationships. Though most of the manga’s few threads of story feel woefully underdeveloped, Ono’s characters really live here, and there’s a sense that their lives continue offscreen even as we read. Particularly compelling is the personal journey of Massimo, the apartment’s owner, whose attachment to his roommates becomes tearfully apparent by the end.

Is this my favorite of Ono’s works? No, it’s not. But it’s still Ono, and that’s worth a lot.

MICHELLE: It almost sounds like a dress rehearsal for Ristorante Paradiso, with the young woman coming to Italy to have her lives enriched by a bunch of older men. And even if it’s not Ono’s best, it’s always interesting to read an early work of such a unique creator and chart how she has grown over the years.

MELINDA: Yes, it really is wonderful to be given the opportunity to trace the evolution of her work like this. I’m so pleased Viz has been releasing so much of her work!

So, what do you bring to us as our last selection for the evening?

MICHELLE: A bit of an odd duck, I’m afraid. I’m talking about the sixth volume of Raiders, published by Yen Press, which has the distinction of being the only manhwa I’ve read that is distinctly geared for a male audience.

Raiders is set in England, and follows a young man named Irel Clark as he first discovers then drinks from a bottle containing the blood of Jesus, which renders him immortal. Also searching for this magical beverage is Lamia, a zombie hoping for a cure, and they eventually team up, with Irel serving as her food supply. By the sixth volume, Irel and Lamia have parted ways and are independently learning some shocking truths about Christianity.

There is so much that’s wrong with Raiders. The story is convoluted and difficult to follow. The same could be said of the action scenes, and the art in general is just too bright/white. It makes me wish the book came with a knob so I could adjust the picture. The breakneck pace makes each volume a breeze to read, but there’s not enough time for plot developments to sink in, and there are still characters whose names I don’t know.

Even with all of these issues, though, I don’t actually dislike Raiders. Though one is bounced between scenes without always understanding how they relate, the scenes are usually interesting enough in their own right, and gradually a picture is beginning to emerge of what the series actually is: a very cynical take on Christianity and religion as a whole. If more people were aware of Raiders, I could imagine it causing a stir with quotes like “Religious zealots are no different than gambling addicts. They are obsessed lunatics.” In the world of Raiders, Christianity is most decidedly a myth, and one created with megalomaniacal aims in mind. Irel, with his newfound immortality, presents a challenge to the man responsible, which could lead to all manner of intriguing developments.

While I can’t really recommend Raiders, therefore, I intend to keep reading it.

MELINDA: Actually, the whole religion-is-lunacy theme you’re describing here makes me feel suddenly interested in the series.

MICHELLE: I had a feeling it might. There’s a sci-fi angle to it as well, which really doesn’t make any sense at this point (and might never), but that theme is certainly what made me really sit up and take notice.

MELINDA: You know, I’d become a little jaded about zombie comics, but I think I have to give this one a look, finally.

MICHELLE: Yeah, it’s less about humans having to fend off zombie hordes than it is about zombies being bummed out about their unlives.

MELINDA: Something we can all relate to. Heh.

MICHELLE: Yeah, though I thankfully haven’t had the experience of my leg failing to reattach itself on account of being sliced by the special sword wielded by an albino vampire.

MELINDA: You haven’t? Geez, Michelle, you’re so sheltered.

MICHELLE: I should get out more.

MELINDA: Indeed.

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  1. Oooh- a new volume of Ooku!!!

    I’m not usually a huge Fumi Yoshinaga fan for various reasons, but boy is Ooku a great manga (although the translation makes my brain hurt). And yeah, I have to agree the cat incident is pretty harsh… but just like all the other violence, it’s not in the least gratuitous, and volume 2 is actually by far my favorite volume (so far anyways). In addition to all the other reasons it’s a great read, volume 2 is also such a beautifully immediate explication of the Buddhist view of suffering and what to do with it. The end of the volume made me cry (in a good way).

    …Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, the whole series so far kind of has an underlying Buddhist feel to it- Yoshinaga doesn’t skimp on the cruelty, but she’s always clear that the circumstances are what make the characters, and that even the coldest, least likable of them are doing the best they can with what they’ve been dealt. I think her compassion for her sometimes pretty awful characters is a big part of what I like in the manga.

    Hmmm, and Kamisama Kiss sounds kind of fun too. I read a couple volumes of Black Bird, and kind of liked them in a cringe-inducing, embarrassed way, until I couldn’t tolerate the female lead’s wussiness anymore. So Black Bird Lite actually sounds kind of enjoyable. Gah, so much manga, so little time.

    > Yeah, though I thankfully haven’t had the experience of my leg failing to reattach itself on account of being sliced by the
    > special sword wielded by an albino vampire.

    XXXD. Man, I hate it when that happens. ;-)

    • I definitely plan to get caught up on Ooku in the near future, so thanks for the reassurance regarding volume two. I think I’m just going to have to suck it up and plow forward.

  2. Danielle Leigh says:

    I’ve pre-ordered Ooku 6 from Rightstuf (in the hopes that it ships early as pre-ordered manga often does from there) but it is no understatement to say that Ooku 6 is probably the media highlight of my summer.

    And I’m glad that Michelle explained that Kamisama Kiss is NOT like the rape-y Black Bird in many respects (I’m know Michelle and I have very different levels of affection for KK but it hurts me to see the two even mentioned in the same sentence).

  3. I haven’t eaten yet today, but for whatever it’s worth, I’d like to point out that historical or alt-historical fiction is still filtered through the lens of what we find entertaining. If some aspect of it bothers you, I think it’s completely valid to ask why it’s worth the focus it’s given. This doesn’t really reflect so much on what I’ve read of Ooku, but coming from a geek background heavy with role-playing games, I’ve seen some guys who want to preserve a lot of really superfluous sexist garbage in a fantasy game in the name of historical accuracy when they really just want to revel in blatant misogyny and they couldn’t care less if there are female gamers around the table. Because of these experiences I always ask myself if some aspect of a story is worth the cost in entertainment. On the other hand, like you said, a lot of the entertainment value of Ooku really is directly derived from how realistic and well thought out it all seems.

    Anyhooow…my biggest problem with Raiders was the crazy mood shifts. It would be really grim dark horror one page and silly gag comedy on the next. It really made the horror aspects seem that much more cynical and mean-spirited. Now that I think about it, that’s a problem I’ve had with most manhwa stories I’ve read, that and some of the most entitled, chauvinistic male characters I’ve ever experienced.

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  1. […] Michelle Smith and Melinda Beasi discuss snacks and recent releases in their latest Off the Shelf column at Manga Bookshelf. Anna looks at the last volumes of some Tokyopop series at Manga […]

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