manga bookshelf

Off the Shelf: The Ugly & the Beautiful

MICHELLE: Miss? I say, excuse me, miss?


MICHELLE: Can I get a little manga discussion over here?

MELINDA: Oh, well, I guess so. It’ll cost ya, though.

MICHELLE: What attitude! I’d like to speak to your supervisor! Or, barring that, you could tell me what you read this week!

MELINDA: My supervisor’s pretty scary, so I guess I’ll go for the second option. I’ve spent my week reading a couple of different shoujo manga based on games (not exactly the most reliable source for great fiction) with drastically different results.

First, I caught up to the end of Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution, a series whose first two volumes were once the subject of a Failure Friday column, “Fat girls have faces too.”

From that post, “I have to wonder, is there anyone involved with this manga (or the game it was based on) who has struggled with overweight? It seems impossible that there could be … the entire thing reads like a thin person’s perspective on obesity. The series exists in that stereotypical mindset where physical fitness is as simple as a balanced diet and exercise, and fat people are lazy gluttons who simply lack willpower (and possibly basic intelligence). It’s simplistic, insulting, and just blatantly not true, which begs the question, who is this manga actually for? Surely not fat girls, or at least not real ones.”

I’d love to report that my feelings about the series have changed after reading volumes three and four, but unfortunately, they really haven’t. In these volumes, Hitomi’s diet and exercise plans continue along, easy as (sugar-free) pie, with the most dramatic setback being the discovery that failure to consume enough carbohydrates makes it difficult for her to concentrate on her studies. Her harem of boys fawn over her, helping her along towards her goal, and though one even tries to hold her hand, Hitomi has little emotional reaction to it all. And why would she, when she’s so happy-go-lucky and simple-minded? There’s no exploration of how being overweight might affect her self-esteem (especially with boys), and no social repercussions, outside of a group of girls who are jealous because she’s so popular with the school hotties.

And okay, I know I’m harping. I realize this is a hot-button issue for me. But only thin people believe that losing weight is as simple as realizing that sweets are bad for you and “exercise is fun!” which is basically Hitomi’s journey. And only real fat kids can know how unrealistic and insensitive it is to suggest that committing themselves to a health regimen will win them the support and admiration of all the most popular boys (or girls) in their class. There’s nothing in Hitomi that reflects what really goes on in the world of an overweight teen, even just in terms of their own self-loathing, never mind what seeps in from the outside. There’s some passing reference at one point to Hitomi’s battle to avoid buying sweets, as one of the boys mentions watching her gazing longingly at them through the bakery window, but that’s the closest to an internal struggle we ever see in Hitomi. As a result, when she does lose the weight (and win herself a face!) it feels unearned, because the problem never seemed real in the first place.

Oh, and the best part? After Hitomi’s lost weight, she’s still as clumsy and hopeless as always, only now it’s super-cute ’cause she’s thin!

I have issues. Can you tell?

MICHELLE: I have so many reactions to this I hardly know where to begin. At one point I thought, “Man, I’d like to see a realistic story about a heavy teen trying to lose the weight,” but then I realized that, no I really wouldn’t. I have lived that quite enough, thanks.

Really, it makes me sad that The Stellar Six of Gingacho will not be completed in English, thanks to TOKYOPOP’s closure. As you might recall, one of the six friends is an overweight girl—with an actual face!—whose weight does not factor into the plot or her personality at all. I recently acquired volume ten in Japanese, just to see how it ends, and lo, there is a moment where the chubby girl gets to smile one of those beatific smiles that warm boys’ hearts and then the boy thinks about how cute she is. I won’t tell you which boy, but I must tell you it’s the one I predicted. *buffs nails on lapel*

I guess what I’m getting at is, “Don’t lose heart! There are manga out there who treat overweight characters with respect. We’re… just… not going to get to read them.”

MELINDA: And, you know, I’m struggling a little to decide why what you just described feels awesome and not insulting at all, while what I just described feels the opposite… but it really does. I guess it is because that story isn’t about her losing weight, and just about her living life, which overweight people actually do get to do (believe it or not, thin society), when they’re not struggling with feelings about their bodies.

So what do you have for us this week, Michelle? Anything with less rage attached?

MICHELLE: And it doesn’t treat her like she’s some project in need of fixing. If she decides to do it herself, fine, but she doesn’t need some bishounen swooping in with platitudes about diet and exercise.

Anyway, lest I work myself up into a froth over something I haven’t even read, I will instead relate my experience with the first volume of Deltora Quest! This is a new series from Kodansha Comics, based on a series of children’s fantasy books by Australian author Emily Rodda. Sometimes adaptations from Western novels work well, but sometimes they don’t and unfortunately, Deltora Quest falls into the latter category.

The plot—possibly pared down for the manga like the Harlequin releases we’ve discussed in this column in the past—is incredibly generic. In a kingdom called Deltora, Prince Endon and a boy named Jarred—whose father gave his own life to protect the king—are best friends. When Endon’s parents suddenly pass away, his obviously villainous advisor (Prandine) easily convinces him that Jarred is a suspect. Jarred flees to a neighboring village and seven years pass in the space of a panel. Endon eventually finds a note Jarred left him and, realizing Prandine’s treachery, his faith in his friend restored. He summons Jarred back to the palace just as the Shadow Lord (much easier to spot villains when they have names like this as opposed to, say, Brad) attacks. Jarred protects Endon and his pregnant wife, and they pledge to find the seven jewels that have been stolen from the Belt of Deltora, which protects against invasion by the Shadow Lord. About the only unexpected thing in the plot is that, at this point, sixteen more years pass and it looks like Jarred’s son is actually going to be the one going on the jewel quest.

Everything about Deltora Quest feels incredibly superficial, and this isn’t helped at all by the cartoony art, which at times resembles something out of Saint Seiya. I’m not sure why the book is rated Teen instead of All Ages, actually, because I think the most likely audience for it would be kids who’ve already read and enjoyed the book series. I certainly like a good dose of escapist adventure, but this is just too insubstantial for my liking.

MELINDA: That does sound generic, as you say, and you know, I’m not even really fond of stories like this for very young children, because seriously… they are smarter than grownups usually think. I realize I shouldn’t rush to judgement on the source material, when I’ve seen how poorly novels can be adapted into manga, but… ugh. That’s my general reaction to what you’ve just described. “Ugh.”

MICHELLE: With the way Prandine is drawn, I would be surprised if any kid—like, even a preschooler—couldn’t identify him as the villain within three seconds. There are no surprises here, no twists, no cleverness. It’s just some trite story about questing for jewels. I can only hope the original novels are better. I certainly won’t be reading any more of the manga.

I hope your second offering didn’t fill you with rage!

MELINDA: It didn’t! Which perhaps should be surprising, but I’ll do my best to explain why it’s not.

My second game-based manga this week was the fourteenth volume of La Corda d’Oro, also about a teen girl surrounded by a harem of bishounen who are in a position to teach her about something. In this case, the subject is music, which honestly is not presented with any more realism than the diet and exercise lessons going on in Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution, yet, thanks to an array of nicely-developed characters and a little shoujo magic, the process is so much more satisfying.

Of course, it helps that while Kahoko’s bishounen are teaching her about music, she’s teaching them how to be better people—something a few of them sorely need. What’s more, the boys’ transformations are slow and imperfect, making them feel passably real, unlike anything in Ugly Duckling. And though each of the boys is a manga stereotype of one kind or another, their characterizations deepen in later volumes, providing some genuine romantic thrills.

In this volume, tension ramps up as conflicted pianist Ryotaro admits he loves Kahoko, while cutie-pie transfer student Aoi asks her to the school dance. It’s basic reverse-harem stuff, of course, but executed with genuine charm, mainly thanks to Kahoko’s increasingly spunky attitude that’s capable of whipping even secret bad-boy Azuma into a real person. Though it’s hard not to cringe at student violinists repeatedly choosing “Ave Maria” as serious concert material, even the series’ most egregious errors can be ignored in favor of a little heart-pounding romance.

I should mention too, that despite the fact that my background as a music student makes me just as aware of the ludicrousness of La Corda d’Oro‘s take on musical studies as I am of Ugly Duckling‘s horrifying portrayal of teenaged obesity, the effect is simply not the same. It’s one thing to misrepresent someone’s passion, and quite another to misrepresent their pain.

MICHELLE: Someone needs to grab that final sentence and put it on a book cover somewhere!

I was definitely wary of La Corda d’Oro at first, especially as concerned the fairness of a girl who comes by her musical ability magically competing against those who had worked hard for their attainments, but you’ll be happy to know that, based purely on the strength of your love for the series, I have actually now acquired all the available volumes! It’s just a matter of finding the time to read it.

MELINDA: If it makes you feel better, she definitely learns the hard way later on. Heh.

So what’s your final offering for us tonight?

MICHELLE: That does make me feel better. And speaking of disciplines in which long hours of practice pay off (hopefully) in a competitive realm, my final pick tonight is Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk, specifically volumes sixteen and seventeen. I should admit right up front that I love this story to pieces, so forgive me if I get a little incoherent.

Hanamichi Sakuragi was just a delinquent until a crush on a girl inspired him to check out the basketball team at his school, Shohoku High. Turns out, though, that he’s got natural talent, if he can only quell his ego enough to actually bother learning fundamentals and teamwork. He’s come a long way by volume sixteen—Shohoku is playing in the Kanagawa Prefectural tournament, and has just lost a close game in which their captain sustained an ankle injury. In penance for a costly mistake, Sakuragi turns up at school with a shaved head and devotes himself to intensive practice so as to not let anyone down next time around. Volume seventeen ends just as Shohoku begins the game that will determine whether they proceed to Nationals.

I will be the first to admit that Sakuragi is hard to like at first, but his confidence soon becomes endearing rather than annoying (“Talent and drive! I am the total package.”) and his transformation from someone who thinks he’s hot stuff to someone who realizes that he’s got a lot to learn and is serious about accepting instruction is believable and rewarding. Now, when he achieves a moment of triumph in a game, I actually get verklempt. Inoue has also assembled a terrific cast of teammates and rivals, and it’s to his credit that the chapters dealing with a match-up between two teams that aren’t Shohoku are still quite exciting. I think what elevates this above other some other sports manga is the emphasis on the team dynamic, especially Sakuragi’s rivalry with the gifted Rukawa. If they would only work together, they could be amazing, but they’re not quite there yet.

There’s one drawback to reading Slam Dunk, though. One volume at a time is simply not enough. Even two volumes are not enough. Five or six volumes at a time might be sufficient, but do you know what that works out to in real-world time-to-accumulate? A year! I can’t go a whole year without reading Slam Dunk! I was just looking at the solicitations for future volumes on Amazon, and it looks like the game that starts in volume seventeen doesn’t wrap up until volume 21. It would be ideal to read the entire game in one sitting, but do you know when volume 21 comes out? I will tell you: April. That is 8 months away! Oh, the torment.

MELINDA: If I can’t quite relate (yet!) to your love for Slam Dunk, as a big fan of Real, I certainly can to your love of Inoue and basketball. Oh, the pain of shounen sports manga, though! So sorry about that 8 month wait! You’ll have to spend your time catching up on his other works!

MICHELLE: Yes, I do have nine volumes of Real (volume ten coming in November!) and ten VIZBIG editions of Vagabond to sustain me. Ooh, and the anime is streaming legally in a couple of places. *strokes imaginary goatee*

MELINDA: I suspect you’ll make it through, then.

MICHELLE: Yes, I am two minutes into the first of 101 anime episodes and already I am feeling much better.

MELINDA: *pats*

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  1. Everything that you say about “Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution” makes it sound like toxic waste. It’s one thing for a story to merely be bad, it’s another thing for a story to be bad and harmful.

    I too would love to read a comic about a fat person who lives life as a fat person, whether they stick their tongue out at “thin society”, are struggling with their self-image, or doing both at the same time. Particularly if it’s told by a comic book artist who is or has been fat … as someone who has never been fat, even if I do lots of research, I don’t think I could ever tell such a story as well as someone who has lived the experience. Of course, I might enjoy a parody the ideas perpetuated by “Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution” too.

    And I also think your comment about misrepresenting passion vs. misrepresenting pain is brilliant. Reading a misrepresentation of one’s passion can be entertainingly hilarious – misrepresenting one’s pain, not so.

  2. I watched the first two episodes of the Slam Dunk Anime and loved it I only recentlly found out Viz is putting the Manga out I thought I was goign to have to settle for the old Gutsoon! Entertainment partial relese but hey now I got no excuse awsome. On an unrelated note I also will miss the Steller Six of Gingacho (a sereis that had me exlaiming in volume two I wish I had friends like this audiblly in my local Barnes and Noble^^;)

    • If you only recently found out about the manga releases, that means you have seventeen volumes to catch up on! I kind of envy you! :) There are 31 total volumes in the series, and VIZ seems pretty committed to a bimonthly release schedule, so it should be running for another 2.5 years or so.

      As for The Stellar Six, I wish I could be hopeful about its chances. Ideally, it would appear on JManga, but I can’t let myself believe that’ll actually happen.

  3. This is one of the funniest dialogues you’ve written yet ^^ – also the 101 Slam Dunk episodes are time well spent watching (although even at 101 they don’t cover the full manga, as far as I know).


  1. […] beauty, and the total cluelessness of Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution in their latest Off the Shelf column at Manga […]

  2. […] I read the first volume of Deltora Quest, which was sufficient to convince me that I didn’t need to read any more […]

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