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Off the Shelf: the good & the great

MICHELLE: Hey, Melinda. How is a majestic field different from a gaudy shrimp?

MELINDA: Hmmm, I don’t know, how *is* a majestic field different from a gaudy shrimp?

MICHELLE: One’s a proud lawn and the other is a loud prawn!

MELINDA: Ba-dum-dum *chick*

MICHELLE: That one can be blamed on Stephen Fry. Now that I’ve done my obligatory bad joke, want to get on with the real reason why we’re here?

MELINDA: Sure! My turn?? Me, me, me??

MICHELLE: You, you, you.

MELINDA: Okay! I’m actually pretty excited to talk about both of my selections this week (in case you couldn’t quite tell), as both of them really embody the beauty and power of the medium.

I’ll begin with Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story, published in hardcover splendor by Yen Press. The story is set in nineteenth-century Central Asia, along the Silk Road, where 20-year-old Amir, daughter of the semi-nomadic Halgal tribe is meeting her betrothed, twelve-year-old Karluk, for the first time. Karluk is the oldest son of the Eihon tribe who are settled near the Caspian Sea, and whose culture differs significantly from that of the Halgal. Though the age difference is a shock for both of them, the greater challenge for Amir is finding her place in her new tribe and proving her worth to Karluk’s family.

So much about this manga is beautiful and refreshing, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Though there is some tribal drama here in the background, with Amir’s tribe determined to take her back from the Eihon in order to marry her more advantageously, the story’s focus is much more on the day-to-day, as Amir and Karluk adjust to their marriage and to each other—a much more compelling subject in my view.

Though Amir is clearly the center of things (she is the title character, after all), the story’s narrative remains staunchly objective, with no particular insight into anyone’s inner thoughts or feelings. While a lesser writer might easily lose the thread without a clear point of view to cling to, Mori uses the opportunity to focus on detail. No expression or bit of dialogue is wasted. Every moment is deliberate and carefully crafted to eke out these characters and their burgeoning relationships. As a result, we feel that we’re getting to know the characters just as slowly as they are becoming comfortable with each other, something I found to be incredibly effective as a reader.

This is a quiet, slow-moving manga, with an emphasis on character development, yet it also has some of the most thrilling moments I’ve experienced in my comics reading to date. Perhaps most spectacular is a scene early on, in which Amir has gone off to catch the ingredients for rabbit stew (something her new family has never eaten). Concerned for her welfare, Karluk follows after her, only to witness her deftly hunting rabbits from horseback with a bow and arrow, a skill his tribe has long forgotten. Amir is full of moments like these, quietly winning Karluk’s heart (and ours) with her knowledge and ability, so different from anything he’s grown up with. More tentative are her efforts towards consummating her marriage, which obviously requires some patience and delicacy.

And “delicacy” is the key word here. While there are any number of things that could be either completely creepy or played for laughs in a story about a 20-year-old bride and her child groom, there is absolutely no trace of either in this manga.

Have I mentioned, too, that it’s just completely gorgeous? From the meticulous period details to the truly adorable livestock, this series is a feast for the eyes. It’s really just a treat in every possible way.

MICHELLE: That sounds wonderful indeed. I love stories where the introduction to the world and its people feels completely organic, especially when you’re able to see how the way they’ve lived has influenced the person they are now. My copy is literally six inches from my left arm, so I will definitely be reading this soon.

MELINDA: It’s really the loveliest thing, Michelle. I think you will love it. I should also note that I am one of the two manga bloggers still in existence who hasn’t yet read Emma, but seeing this, I feel I have to rectify that immediately.

MICHELLE: I’ve only read part of Emma, though I own all of it.

MELINDA: So what have you got for us tonight?

MICHELLE: I’ve also got a story about a skilled and awe-inspiring young woman making her way in a new environment, though this one is played for laughs. Oresama Teacher is up to its third volume now, and though I can’t honestly call it the greatest thing I’ve ever read, it definitely makes me giggle.

As you’re aware, Oresama Teacher revolves around the struggle of Mafuyu Kurosaki, a former gang leader expelled from her old school for fighting, to stay out of trouble at her new school and make the best of her second chance. This isn’t easy, since she doesn’t feel at ease around girls (they just seem too fragile) and so instead develops a friendship with the class delinquent in addition to reuniting with her childhood love, the guy who basically groomed her for gang life in the first place, who is now her homeroom teacher.

In volume three, Mafuyu laments the state of her larder and decides to go home for the weekend, where she immediately finds herself in the middle of gang strife once again. But, y’know, funny gang strife. A rival gang sets a trap for her by staging various crimes—knowing that Mafuyu will rush to the rescue—and she ends up tied up in some building with two of her former underlings.

One of my favorite things about the series is mangaka Izumi Tsubaki’s impeccable comic timing, as illustrated by the following scene:

Mafuyu: *discovers similarly bound underlings*
Underling #1: Oh.
Underling #2: Oh.
Nice big pause emphasized by a large airy panel.
Underling #2: Did you cut your hair?

End of chapter.

I can totally imagine this happening in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, it probably did.

Wacky hijinks ensue, but unlike most wacky hijinks, these are actually amusing. By the end of the volume Mafuyu has met a new nemesis, the bishounen student council chairman whose beguiling charisma makes others do his bidding. It’s not all hilarity, of course, and there are some very nice scenes as Mafuyu confronts the unpleasant fact that things have gone on pretty much unchanged without her around.

Really, I can’t recommend the series enough. And I’m finding it harder and harder to believe that Tsubaki’s previous Shojo Beat series, The Magic Touch, was really as bad as people said.

MELINDA: Having been a one of the people who hated The Magic Touch, I’m kinda bowled over by how hilarious this manga sounds. I enjoyed the first volume, certainly, but I hadn’t quite decided whether to carry on. That exchange you quote, though… that’s definitely my kind of funny.

MICHELLE: Do you remember what was so bad about it, or has too much time passed?

MELINDA: Probably too much time has passed, but I do remember feeling that it was very tedious. Which can’t possibly be said for Oresama Teacher.

MICHELLE: Hm. Well, I may need to check it out anyway, if only to appreciate how Tsubaki has improved at her craft.

So what is your second incarnation of “beauty and power”?

MELINDA: My second subject is actually the manga I’ve been most looking forward to discussing with you this week, and that would be Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son, also in hardcover, from Fantagraphics.

This manga tells the story of two elementary school students, Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki, who, besides navigating everyday pre-teen challenges like siblings and school friends, are also slowly becoming aware that they are transgender. It’s a gradual and individual process for each of them, but the two bond quickly when Shuichi is seated next to Yoshino on his first day at her school, and it isn’t too long before they begin to suspect that this is something they have in common.

There has been a lot of really eloquent discussion of this volume already (David’s review from just this morning comes immediately to mind, along with your early review), so I won’t attempt to do anything here but explain some of the reasons why I personally loved this manga, and I really do have quite a bit to say on that front.

First of all, this is a elegantly-crafted, character-driven story that lets us into its characters’ private worlds with both candor and delicacy. We are brought into their lives completely, and though we’re privy to their some of their most private thoughts and fears, there is never a sense that we’re observing them as “subjects” or invading their privacy—something I often feel when experiencing “issue”-focused fiction. the real secret to this is that they aren’t treated as though their gender is all that they are, despite how much weight that aspect of their identity is being given in their thoughts and hearts over the course of this volume.

Many of this volume’s most affecting moments are its most quiet and private—Shuichi buying himself a girl’s headband, Yoshino (more commonly referred to by her classmates as “Takatsuki-kun”) riding the train out of town in her brother’s old school uniform—with very little in the way of Big Dramatic Moments, which helps to maintain the silent tension growing in the hearts of both of its leads as they begin to let themselves think more and more about their feelings. Shuichi’s realization that he really should have been born a girl comes not as some kind of melodramatic epiphany, but rather as a private moment of honesty. And these kinds of moments—these quiet bits of realization—don’t magically fix anything or create any kind of grand determination within the characters’ hearts to be themselves or do their best. They simply add to the characters’ growing self-awareness and (to an extent) their bond with each other.

I could go on here, but actually I’m pretty eager to talk with you about this manga.

MICHELLE: It’s been four months since I read this, but so many moments remain indelibly stamped on my brain, like when Shuichi has dressed as a girl while home alone and ends up passing as a girl in an interaction with a solicitor, or the absolutely wrenching scene in which Yoshino experiences her first period. Each of these moments is quiet and understated, but so vastly important in the lives of the characters.

MELINDA: Oh, the scene with Yoshino and her period… it’s the ultimate betrayal of her body against her, and yet as you say, it’s not at all overstated. It doesn’t have to be, because it’s important without the author having to telegraph that to us. Even when Yoshino leaves school crying after some boys accidentally reinforce exactly what the period means for her, it’s not played for drama in the least.

MICHELLE: I also liked that the story is so completely innocent. Thus far, the children have not been concerned with sexuality; what they’re feeling has simply to do with their own personal identity, uncomplicated by any other factors.

MELINDA: I don’t think bringing sexuality into the picture would necessarily damage the story’s innocence. But they have plenty to think about as it is, so I’m not bothered at all that it has not come up in a major way.

Mostly, I’m just completely charmed by this story, and content to take it as it comes. I feel like I’m in very sure hands.

So Michelle, what’s our final volume for the evening?

MICHELLE: Well, as you know, I’ve spent the last week catching up on Pandora Hearts, and wanted to talk about the sixth and most recent volume.

It’s actually a lot more simple plot-wise than recent volumes have been, as Oz’s uncle, Oscar, decides to give his nephew a fun diversion by whisking him off to visit his little sister (who, thanks to the ten-year time lapse, is now older than him) at school. Much forced hilarity ensues, with Oscar pretending to be daft in order to encourage Oz to enjoy himself, and Oz playing along to avoid worrying others. Along the way he meets a couple of other students, engaging in a lengthy bickerfest with one of them, and a girl who spirits him away to a Baskerville lair.

The most interesting aspect of Pandora Hearts is its characters, and in this volume it seems that everyone—even near total strangers—is coming down on Oz for his tendency to accept things as they are. Oz makes no effort to protect himself—getting easily nabbed by the Baskervilles, for example—and so inconveniences others when they have to save him, but there’s such a solid backstory reason for his behavior that it never comes across as annoying. I don’t know if some of the words Oz hears in this volume will have a lasting effect, but it looks like some may have gotten through, at least.

Even more interesting to me is the brief snippet of background we get for Xerxes Break, the Shigure-like figure in the story who is friendly and silly but extremely capable of manipulating those closest to him for his own goals. What’s so interesting about him is how honest he is about what he’s done after the fact, and everyone just keeps on trusting him. Still, he does seem to have his own code of honor, and downplays his own actions when making a personal sacrifice to save someone he cares about. He’s extremely hard to figure out, and thus quite intriguing.

But, of course, Raven is still my favorite.

MELINDA: There was a point in this volume where I began to worry that it was going to let itself linger too long in school-based silliness, but I was relieved to discover that it was all really a ploy to lead us into some terrific character development for Oz. I developed an immediate fondness for the volume’s new characters too—another son of the Nightray household and his outspoken valet.

Also, I’m a pretty big Break fan, so I definitely agree on that point. Even if Raven is still the best. ;)

MICHELLE: To continue on with Fruits Basket comparisons, much like Manabe was essential for challenging Yuki and drawing him out of his shell, I think someone like Elliot is essential for Oz. Sure, I didn’t much enjoy their protracted arguing, but at least Oz was reacting passionately to something.

MELINDA: That’s an excellent point. Oz needs someone to make him mad, and though Alice seems pretty well-equipped to serve that purpose for just about everyone else (or maybe it’s just Raven), Oz identifies with her too strongly for her to fulfill that role in his life.

MICHELLE: Exactly. But she’s also very important in other ways, like seeing through his feigned good humor to the fear of meeting his sister again that lies beneath. Really, just about every character in this series represents something vitally important to Oz, which is pretty impressive.

MELINDA: Agreed! Though with a plot-heavy series like this, it would be easy to focus on all the events that are going on, I think Jun Mochizuki’s greatest strength is with characterization, and you’ve pointed out one of the reasons why.

MICHELLE: Now that I have caught up with the series, I vow never to fall behind again!

MELINDA: Hurrah!

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  1. But if you don’t fall behind, you only get to read one volume at a time, and one volume of Pandora Hearts is never enough! I got a rather huge kick out of the manga series Oz and Elliot were fans of. And the spoiler scene. Ah, the perils of dropping out of the real world for 10 years . . .


  1. […] Michelle Smith and Melinda Beasi discuss a stack of new releases in their latest Off the Shelf column at Manga […]

  2. […] in hardcover by Yen Press. I know I brought up Yen’s production values when I discussed the series’ first volume, but it just has to be mentioned again. This is a gorgeous book, and that alone gives it an air of […]

  3. […] last week’s list, volume two of Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son from Fantagraphics. I absolutely loved the first volume of this series, and I was thrilled to see this pop up a couple of weeks ahead of […]

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