Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with MJ & Michelle! I’m joined once again by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
MICHELLE: It seems like forever since we’ve done a regular Off the Shelf column! It’s actually kind of soothing! What goodies did you read in preparation for this frabjous day?
MJ: Well, I heard you were getting a little bit girly, so I decided to do the same! This week, I delved into the latest volumes of two sunjeong manhwa titles from Yen Press and one Viz shojo title. I’ll begin here with the first of the manhwa, volume nine of Goong.
For those who don’t know, Goong is the story of an ordinary middle-class girl who, thanks to a long-forgotten agreement made by her grandfather, is plucked from her exceedingly normal life to be the new Crown Princess of her country. The premise is pretty standard girls’ comics fare, but what makes this series particularly enjoyable (and unusually fresh) is its setting and characters.
Set in an alternate version of present-day South Korea, with a constitutional monarchy firmly in place, manhwa-ga Park SoHee is able to weave a modern-day romance right alongside all the fantastic historical goodies that would usually be part of a big costume drama. Though the story’s heroine, Chae-Kyung, is thoroughly ensconced in the modern, everyday world, her sudden relocation to the isolation of the royal palace almost makes her seem like the anachronism at times, rather than the other way around. It’s brilliantly executed, really, and this constant conflict serves both the story and its characters very effectively.
Volume nine is the first of Yen’s new omnibus treatment for the series, coming in at 384 pages. It feels pretty meaty at that length, which is really a plus. As much as I love this series, its most frustrating aspect is the seemingly endless string of miscommunications and false starts between Chae-Kyung and her Crown Prince, Shin, and though this volume is full of exactly that, somehow having more of it at once makes the whole thing seem less futile. There’s a lot of drama in this volume, but it feels like things are finally coming to a head, which is is quite welcome at this point.
MICHELLE: I have sadly fallen a bit behind with Goong, but what a delight it was simply to look at the size of the omnibus and imagine all the goodness that awaits within. It’s a pretty long series (21 volumes and counting), and I’m so happy Yen arranged to bring it to us that much faster. It’s always a treat to read, and now we’ll get an extra helping!
MJ: It’s really a great installment, too. The story’s primary relationship has always been sort of one-note in terms of its role in the series, but it really takes on some nuance in this volume, to the point where it’s really difficult as a reader to root for any specific outcome. Would Chae-Kyung be served better by being released from the confines of the palace or by pursuing true love? The answer at this point is very unclear, both to her and to the reader, and the conflict itself has become honestly quite tragic. She’s in an impossible situation and there is really no good choice.
The art is as lovely as always, and (as always) my only real complaint is that the author has not yet done away with the unfortunate Eunuch Kong.
So what have you got for us this week? Bring on the girlish delights!
MICHELLE: Ugh, Eunuch Kong. I will never forget the panel of him frolicking with Prince William.
Anyway, after finishing a couple of josei series this week, both of which dealt with the characters graduating and pursuing their own paths in life, I decided to binge on some feel-good shojo to lift my spirits.
TOKYOPOP tends to license a lot of stuff that I’m unfamiliar with, which probably accounts for their place of prominence in the list of publishers who have turned me into a money-spending devotee of a title based purely on a review copy alone. Silver Diamond, Shinobi Life, Takeru: Opera Susanoh Sword of the Devil… all of these are very good series that came as a complete (and pleasant) surprise. True, sometimes you get The Qwaser of Stigmata (“Breaking new barriers in tastelessness!” cries Carlos Santos of ANN), but the duds are countered by some truly charming works. A shining example of the latter is Karakuri Odette, the third volume of which I read this week.
In this mostly episodic series, an android teen named Odette attends high school and attempts to understand things that are important to her classmates. A lot of the time, this results in gently amusing scenarios like “a pair of robots search for a lost cat” or “Odette’s tired and sick-feeling friend prolongs a visit to the amusement park when he sees how much fun Odette is having.”
Sometimes, though, her desire to understand and be like a real girl is a bit heartbreaking. In this volume, we learn of a new fad at school where someone with a crush writes the name of their beloved on an eraser and if they manage to use up the entire eraser themselves, their feelings will be returned. Odette is still confused about this thing called “liking,” but wants so desperately to be like the others that she participates in the ritual without having written a name.
About the one complaint I could make at this stage is that keeping track of who likes whom is a little daunting. It goes something like this: first-year Yukimura has feelings for Odette. His friend and love advisor Mika has feelings for Odette’s friend Asao, who has feelings for Odette’s other friend Yoko, who has feelings for a classmate named Okada. Okada reciprocates Yoko’s feelings, so if I were to draw that out I think it’d look a bit like a balloon with a string!
MJ: I admit I’ve been pretty interested in this series ever since it was first announced. Though in description, it sounds a lot more like typical shojo than I had perhaps expected. I suppose what I mean is that Odette doesn’t sound all that different on the face of it than, say, Kimi ni Todoke‘s Sawako. So many shojo heroines are innocent and confused about concepts like “liking.” I’m assuming that this actually does manage to feel fresh with an android character? Or is that a point the series is actually making? That the android is not so different?
MICHELLE: I think comparing Odette to Sawako is fair, but I think this series does still manage to feel fresh. While the focus is on emotions and relationships, tech-related issues are also employed to further character development. For example, in this volume, problems with her regular battery force Odette to carry around a huge, unsightly battery pack. This just brings home her difference all the more, and as she’s dealing with trying to understand the feelings of the boy who likes her, she begins to worry his feelings will change because of what she is. For the first time she thinks, “I am so ugly.” Most teen girls have probably felt that way at one time or another, and it’s interesting that Odette’s mechanical origins have prompted a step in the direction of being more human.
MJ: Okay, I’m definitely going to have to check that series out.
Speaking of being human (or not), the second of this week’s reads for me is the third volume of Viz’s Natusme’s Book of Friends. The series follows a teen boy, Takashi, who inherited his ability to see spirits from his grandmother, Reiko. Reiko was a loner and a bit of a bully with the yokai (spirits) she could see–so much so that she made a game of stealing their names for her ironically-titled “Book of Friends,” essentially binding them into servitude. Takashi has inherited the book, and once he figures out what it’s for, he vows to return the yokai’s names to them. This is often more complicated (and dangerous) than one might hope.
I’ve been a fan of this series since the beginning, though what’s started to get to me a bit is the chapter-to-chapter rehash of the story’s premise, leftover from its serialization. It has the effect of making the series feel even more stubbornly episodic than it actually is, and by the third volume I’m feeling a bit anxious for something to really happen.
I’m being unfair here, though, because I think something really is happening in this volume, even if it’s moving more slowly than I’d like. Not only is Takashi’s “bodyguard” (a yokai stuck in the form of a lucky cat) beginning to care about him (very much contrary to plan) but Takashi is starting to discover some inkling of real purpose in his life at long last. This story’s episodes are often touching, but this volume goes the extra mile in that direction, especially in its second chapter, which tells the story of a yokai who is forced to watch her long-time human sweetheart move on to one of his own kind.
Though the series is perhaps in danger of losing momentum, its sweetness still holds up under pressure, at least at this point. I hope the seeds planted in this volume will continue to grow over the course of the next.
MICHELLE: This is another series on which I’ve fallen behind, but since I’m a sucker for stories in which people discover their purpose, it sounds like I would like it. Any time anyone in a story realizes that they’ve found where they belong, I invariably cry. It sounds like things may happen a little too slowly in this series to evoke that response, but I clearly need to continue reading!
MJ: I think that moment is forthcoming, I really do. Or I’m at least fervently hoping. Takashi’s a genuinely dear character and I’d really like to see where the artist will take him.
So, what other lovely shojo have you to add to the mix tonight?
MICHELLE: I wouldn’t exactly call it lovely, but I had a good time reading the second and final volume of Flower in a Storm. This is a Shojo Beat title about a girl named Riko with preternatural strength who’s simply trying to blend in when Ran, an outrageous rich guy, swoops in and, along with introducing all sorts of crazy complications to her life, encourages her to embrace what makes her special instead of trying to hide it.
The second volume is more of the same, though with some herky-jerky plotting designed to bring it to its end on schedule. The obstacles they face include Ran’s obnoxious fiancée (who’s so over-the-top she rides a motorcycle around inside the school), pressures from Ran’s family, and a bevy of assassins who kidnap Ran and whisk him off to parts unknown. Riko’s realization that she does love Ran after all is too sudden and the ending’s a bit weird, too, but I like Riko and I adore Ran, so it ended up being a fun read. I love that Ran wants Riko to be comfortable with herself and I love the way he doesn’t look like every other guy in shojo manga.
In the end, though the story itself gets ridiculous at times, the characters are endearing enough that if anything else by Shigeyoshi Takagi gets licensed here, I’d definitely give it a try.
MJ: Any response I might have to this is overwhelmed by delight over the term, “herky-jerky.”
MICHELLE: I just had to check to make sure I didn’t make it up! (I didn’t.) Maybe it’s a Southern thing…
MJ: I would love it whether you made it up or not. I’m planning to use it every day.
MICHELLE: I enjoy trying to work the word “hankering” into daily conversation, myself.
MJ: Well, I’ve got a hankering for some herky-jerky girls’ manhwa.
MICHELLE: Lay it on me!
MJ: Oh, Michelle, it really is herky-jerky in the very best way. I’m speaking, of course, about the final volume of Han SeungHee and Jeon JinSeok’s One Thousand and One Nights. Though I do try (no, really) to maintain a professional demeanor here at Manga Bookshelf, I fail utterly when it comes to this series. I really do. The word “squee” barely manages to describe my feelings, so please bear with me as I sink into the depths of my fangirliest fangirl self.
For the uninitiated, this is (as the title suggests) a retelling of the original tales told by Scheherazade to her mad king, only this time, Scheherazade is a man named Sehara, who takes his sister’s place in the sultan’s harem to save her from certain death. Though the premise might sound like little more than an excuse for rampant homoeroticism and skimpy period costumes, it’s actually a well-constructed mix of lush beauty and dramatic storytelling that has inspired repeated spells of rapture from my little corner of the internet.
One of the series’ most charming characteristics is its complete rejection of a conventional timeline, and this volume is one of at least two that feature a modern-day story. What makes this one much different than the last is that, for the first time ever, it is the sultan Shahryar’s story, not Sehara’s. It’s over-dramatic and a little clumsy, just as one might expect from an inexpert storyteller, but its intentions are what’s important and I think few readers will have complaints in that area.
Though I’ve sometimes compared this series’ primary relationship to Ash and Eiji’s in Akimi Yashida’s Banana Fish, this series’ artistic team is much less shy about spelling out its true nature. Early on, I wondered how this might play out with so much blood on Shahryar’s hands, and I’m pleased to say that the conclusion feels far from cheap.
MICHELLE: Oh, I love the idea that Shahryar’s inexperience is actually reflected in the story he tells. I own this whole series myself but I still can’t seem to find the time to actually start it. So many books, so little time!
MJ: He gets called on it too, which is one of the volume’s best moments, I have to say.
When you do get around to it, I recommend a glorious marathon read. This series will do you in, I tell you! And I mean that in the best way possible.
So, what’s our last selection for the evening?
MICHELLE: Volume fourteen of Ouran High School Host Club! As you might know, this is the story of a scholarship student (Haruhi) at a private school who breaks an expensive vase belonging to the school’s host club and must work off her debt by masquerading as a male member of the club. That was only the premise at the beginning, though, since now everyone is close friends and several members of the group have feelings for Haruhi.
Haruhi is rather obtuse, however, and so when one of her friends finally confesses his feelings to her in this volumes, with extra clarity to prevent any misunderstandings, she realizes how insensitive she’s been. Of course, this friend isn’t the one she really loves. That honor goes to Tamaki, another extravagant rich guy who is not so different from Flower in a Storm‘s Ran. Other similarities between the series include a tendency for ridiculous plotting—Haruhi and Tamaki have a very sweet conversation but before they can communicate their feelings, an impromptu kidnapping and transitory love rival intervene—but likeable characters. It feels like the series is treading water at this point, which is unfortunate, but at least a little bit of progress has been made.
I was happy to hear recently that this series is ending soon in Japan; I always love the fact that manga really and truly ends, and look forward to some unequivocal love confessions in the future.
MJ: I’ll admit to a weakness for love confessions. I haven’t really delved into this series, despite its popularity. It’s encouraging to hear that you feel it’s at least headed to a satisfying conclusion, even if it’s a bit further down the line than you might like.
MICHELLE: I used to get really frustrated with Ouran sometimes because of its lack of progress, but eventually realized the futility in that. Now I just go into it expecting episodic fun with a dash of romance, and I’m rarely disappointed. Rarely happily transported, though this isn’t unheard of, but rarely disappointed all the same.
MJ: That’s not so bad, I suppose. Though something a little more herky-jerky could be fun. :D
MICHELLE: … You really are in love with that word, aren’t you? :)
MJ: I blame you.
MICHELLE: Go right ahead. :)
MJ: And on that note, I’ll quit while I’m ahead.
Thanks to Michelle for putting up with me once more. Join us again next week for an all-new Off the Shelf!