Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with MJ & Michelle! I’m joined, once again, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
MJ: There’s a chill in the air here in western Massachusetts–great weather for curling up with a blanket and a good book. I expect that’s not the case at all down your way, but I’m hoping you’ve read some anyway. You know. So the column won’t suck.
MICHELLE: Well, no one could call it chilly but our highs are now merely in the low 90s, so that’s a definite improvement! With the absolutely essential help of central air I have indeed managed a fair amount of reading this week!
MJ: Hallelujah, central air! So… anything noteworthy?
MICHELLE: Some! I thought I would take this week’s selections in ascending order of preference. And so, accordingly, I start with the first volume of The Witch of Artemis, a new series from TOKYOPOP.
In this shonen fantasy series, originally serialized in Comic Blade, orphaned Kazuhi is living a bland existence on Earth and spends a lot of time daydreaming about Artemis, a star that was the subject of many stories his late father told him. As the stories go, the people of Earth and the people of Artemis once lived together, but eventually those with special magical powers departed earth to settle on Artemis. Conveniently, Kazuhi overhears a news report about a girl in strange clothes—why the news would report this, I do not know—and dashes to the scene, whereupon he meets one witch, whom we later learn is named Viora, who inflicts a death curse upon him, and another, called Marie, who whisks him off to Artemis in order to cure him.
Marie is most textbook example of a tsundere character I have ever seen. After curing Kazuhi, she berates and insults him, trying to get him to leave her alone, but when he finds out she wants to do good deeds for people, he volunteers to help and, despite her crusty exterior, she still does things like follow him around when he goes off wandering to ensure he doesn’t come to harm. The second half of the volume depicts their first joint effort at helping someone, and includes an ominous hint from Viora that the world is on the verge of ending.
I might possibly have made this sound better than it is. So far, it’s rather bland. The art is pleasant, but not distinctive, and the characters and plot are the same. There’s always potential inherent in ominous hinting, and so I’m willing to read a second volume to see where the story goes—and, indeed, the series is only three volumes long, so if I’ve read two-thirds of it I might as well go all the way—but at this point I don’t have high hopes that it will ever be anything more than pleasant but not distinctive.
MJ: Well, I suppose the entire universe of the story must be in a fairly bland state if a girl walking around in strange clothes is enough to make the evening news. They can’t help it! They live in a bland world! It *is* hard to stop when the series is so short, though.
MICHELLE: Yeah, it’s not something I would be willing to put up with in a long series, but in a short one it seems like minimal effort is required to get some resolution.
What’ve you been reading?
MJ: To follow your lead, I’ll discuss these in ascending order of preference as well (though I enjoyed everything I read this week on some level). With that in mind, I’ll begin with the first two volumes of Seiho Boys High School! from Viz’s Shojo Beat line. I didn’t have high expectations going in, just based on the premise, and I procrastinated on the first volume so long that I hadn’t yet read it by the time the second arrived.
The premise, as you may know, concerns a secluded all-boys’ boarding school (known as “the Japanese Alcatraz” to its inhabitants) where our hero, Maki, is
sentenced enjoying his freshman year. It’s a prestigious school with a high university acceptance rate, but with no girls in the vicinity, tensions do run a bit high. While at this point, one might expect either a boys’ love romp or gender-bending comedy, the reality is pretty far from either.
It’s a comedy, sure, but it’s the kind of comedy more often found in shonen manga, made up mainly of crude teenage boys being… crude teenage boys. They fight over porn magazines and make rude comments about the school nurse. They tease the gay kid whose junior high girlfriend comes to visit him. Fortunately, the teasing is affectionate and the crudeness is genuinely funny. Still, the episodic first volume gives little insight into the mind and heart of the series’ main character (the guy they feature on the cover isn’t even him) and is little more than vaguely amusing with a side of guilty cringing.
I’m glad I procrastinated, though, because reading the second volume actually sold me on the series to an extent I could not possibly have expected. The crude humor is still there (and even funnier, I must admit), but what turns the series around is that it *finally* focuses on its lead, Maki, giving him a rich, poignant backstory that really takes the story to the next level. There were some touching moments in the first volume, to be fair, but nothing that comes close to what we’re offered in the second. It’s not a perfect manga, by any means, but it’s genuinely compelling by the end of its second volume. It’s also one of the most realistic depictions of teenaged boys I’ve seen in shojo manga.
MICHELLE: Heh, I have also procrastinated on reading the first volume so long that the second volume has now come out!
It really sounds good, and the premise actually reminds me of Here is Greenwood, possibly the first shojo series I watched and or read with all-male leads. It, too, had a school setting and featured much teasing of the lead, but I don’t remember them being terribly crude.
MJ: I’m not saying it’s profound or anything. But it is refreshingly honest about its subjects, even if they are mostly too pretty to be true.
I should mention also that the author’s little side panels–you know, the ones usually reserved for talking about how her book isn’t good enough or her new obsession with hand cream–are genuinely hilarious, with headings like, “Gifts I don’t appreciate,” (like frog postcards) and “Run, Man, Run!” (passionate declarations she’s heard uttered by men). You’d get a kick out of it.
So what’s the next rung up the ladder for you this week?
MICHELLE: Well, like you, I read a pair of Shojo Beat volumes this week, these being volumes six and seven of Otomen. This primarily episodic series stars Asuka Masamune, a manly seeming kendo star who actually harbors a secret fondness for all things girly. Throughout the series he has encountered a few others like himself, including a guy obsessed with make-up and another fixated on flowers. He’s also in love with Ryo, a tomboyish girl, and is secretly the inspiration for the protagonist of a shojo romance manga written by his friend, Juta.
Volume six gets off to a promising start, as we are led to believe Asuka may have reunited with his father, who left the family years ago after proclaiming he wanted to become a woman. Alas, no, though he did meet his aunt and was also rescued by a mysterious figure in purple, so perhaps he’s getting closer. Things take a turn for the worse, though, with a painfully stupid chapter in which Asuka goes on a “test date” with Yamato, a very girly looking boy trying to brush up on his skills with women.
Later, in a story that continues on into volume seven, Asuka meets a new fellow Otomen, this one the lead singer of a gothic visual kei band who’s a closet fan of light, fluffy pop music. And yes, I could not avoid thinking about Detroit Metal City. All of these stories have in common the theme of identity, whether Asuka is hiding his face when performing televised makeovers or donning an oh-so-convenient wig to fill in for the singer he oh-so-conveniently resembles when the other is unable to perform. The humor in Otomen is always over the top, and sometimes it hits just the right absurd note to really appeal to me, but mostly the situations in these chapters are too ridiculous to truly amuse.
Happily, the end of volume seven promises some actual story developments. Not only is Asuka rescued once again by a figure in purple, but Juta—prompted by a need for new material—also gets him pondering whether Ryo actually returns his feelings, since she has never actually said she loves him. In order to help speed things along, Juta spreads a rumor that Asuka is going to be transferring, which prompts a rare display of emotion from Ryo which, while it stops short of being a full confession, makes her feelings clear in a way that’s true to her character. Plus, there’s a cliffhanger! Oh, it’s not the most original plot twist ever, but it is something, and in a series like this, any scrap of a continuing narrative is exceedingly welcome.
MJ: You’ve hit upon exactly the frustration I have with this series, which is its lack of forward motion, plot-wise. I mean, there’s no doubt that Otomen is charming and witty, but you could die waiting for something to actually happen (and now I too am reminded of Detroit Metal City). I realize that advancement of the plot is not really a priority in this kind of comedy, but in a multi-volume series it’s hard to stay motivated as a reader without it. Or at least it’s hard for me. :) Thus, volume seven still stares at me from the shelf. I guess I should pull it down one of these days, if what you say is true, eh?
MICHELLE: It’s definitely a lot better than volume six, if the memory of some of that volume’s unfunny antics is what’s keeping you from proceeding. Still, nothing for me has topped the awesomely silly Christmas chapter in which Asuka is unaccountably fixated on a yule log as the source of holiday cheer. Perhaps nothing ever will again. Sigh.
Maybe your next book will cheer me!
MJ: Michelle, I just lost a full two minutes to uncontrollable giggles thanks to the memory of that yule log, and I’m not sure I can even recall now what my next book is.
MICHELLE: Behold the power of the yule log.
Wait, I’ve got it here on next to me, luckily enough. And we’re on a double-volume roll here today, because my next selection is volumes one and two of Yumi Unita’s Bunny Drop, serialized in josei magazine Feel Young and published here by Yen Press.
Our hero, Daikichi, is a 30-something bachelor whose recently deceased grandfather has left behind a 6-year-old love child, Rin, previously unknown to the rest of the family. Rin is small and fairly withdrawn, and Daikichi’s appalled as the rest of his family pretty much brushes off all responsibility for her. In an impetuous fit of frustration, he declares that he’ll take care of Rin himself, though of course he is completely unprepared for fatherhood. Still, he buckles down and figures it out, thanks to the internet and some advice from friends. He tackles the realities of things like daycare, clothes shopping, and food preparation, and even takes a step down at work so that he can get home to Rin at a decent hour every night.
This might sound dull, but it’s really, really not. It’s moving and funny and honestly compelling. There’s some genuine intrigue, too, as Daikichi attempts to hunt down information on Rin’s absent mother, but the heart of this story is really in the day-to-day as we watch Daikichi and Rin get to know each other and figure out how to be a family together.
With our recent Yotsuba&! column so fresh in my mind, it’s hard not to compare the two series, and I suppose what’s fascinating to observe is that these two stories about a single, young dad raising a six-year-old child could not possibly be more different. While Yotsuba&! is a carefree, nostalgic celebration of the wonder of childhood, Bunny Drop is fully immersed in actual, real-life parenting, both its joys and its sacrifices. It’s just as affectionate and certainly charming, but the contrast is telling and its marketing demographic is clear.
What’s obvious here is, that while Yotsuba&! is aimed at young men who want to appreciate the joys of fatherhood without having to think about actually being fathers, Bunny Drop is aimed at young women who are absolutely expected to become mothers, perhaps even imminently. The sacrifices Daikichi makes in order to accommodate parenting are sacrifices traditionally expected of women. He sidelines his career, gives up drinking with the guys–his entire life is pushed aside in favor of caring for his child. While Yotsuba’s dad works from home in his underwear, enjoying his daughter’s antics and falling asleep with her under the dinner table, Daikichi is racing from his office to day care, angsting over elementary school entrance applications and seeking advice on bedwetting.
Though I make it sound so hectic, it’s really a lovely, warm manga. It charmed me to bits.
MICHELLE: It really does sound incredibly awesome. It’s actually the second josei series about parenting in Yen’s catalog, too, after With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child. I am planning to read this myself soon and am happy to report that you’ve stoked my anticipation!
MJ: I really think you’ll enjoy it. The relationship between Daikichi and Rin is wonderfully sweet and idiosyncratic, without becoming sappy at all. I can definitely recommend it.
So, we’ve reached the peak of your week’s reading adventures! What have you got for us?
MICHELLE: Actually, my favorite this week is also from Yen Press! Sarasah was a series that I didn’t like much at first, owing primarily to its obnoxious protagonist, but it really has grown on me in its later volumes.
Ji-Hae begins the series as a quasi-stalker refusing to acknowledge the disinterest of the boy she likes, and as the series has progressed—including her journey back into the past to right the wrong that’s responsible for the boy’s disdain—she has become much more tolerable. Though unable to fully escape the burden of occasional stupidity, by the fourth and fifth volumes of the series she’s attempting to foil assassination plots and acting valiantly to save the lives of others. Often rash and entirely inept at spying, she still manages a few clever moments that almost made me like her.
The political plot in the background is very vague—the queen was poisoned and some random ambassadors or something are almost ambushed—but it’s still an improvement over the early days of the series. More interesting to me is the fact that Ji-Hae finally learns the details of the wrong she’s supposed to be righting. I appreciate her determination to see that through, regardless of whether it results in the fulfillment of her romantic dreams, and am really interested to see how things play out, given that fate seems equally determined not to let the outcome be changed so easily.
MJ: You know, I think I’ve always liked Ji-Hae a little more than you do, so hearing all this makes me feel anxious to catch up. It’s nice to hear that she’s grown up so much! And I am kinda dying to know the details of the “wrong” she did so many lives ago.
MICHELLE: It definitely puts a different spin on things, which makes it too important for me to just casually reveal. You really ought to get caught up!
MJ: I really ought to. What have I been doing with my time??
MICHELLE: Probably stupid things like sleeping, working, bathing…
MJ: Foolishness, all of it! I’m so ashamed.
MICHELLE: If I ever had the chance to choose a superpower, I’d totally pick the ability to stop time.
MJ: Or maybe grow endless time.
Speaking of, aren’t you going to ask me about my last book? Huh? HUH?
MICHELLE: Oh, I so lost track of time I forgot you had another one! I am sorry. Please, MJ, tell me all about your last book.
MJ: *snif* Okay. Well. The greatest treat for me this week was that I finally got around to reading volume three of Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea, one of my favorite new series in recent memory. It was a bit of a tough read at first. Volume two was pretty dramatic and I’d read it quite a while ago, so it was kind of a challenge to pick up the thread, but once I got swept up, it worked its magic on me just as always.
The series, for those who don’t know, centers around two boys who were literally raised in the sea, and a girl who becomes their friend. It’s all pretty complicated, and the best I can now do is point you to my review of volume one, but suffice it to say that the series’ mysteries are still ongoing, and very little is what it seems.
This volume begins on an uneasy note, with Ruka really not herself after her strange encounter with Sora, who claimed to have put a meteorite in her stomach. Now that Sora’s disappeared, Umi’s clinging to Ruka, and seems to recognize that she’s not quite alone in her own body. Really, she’s not even all there herself, which inspires one of the most wonderful and surreal sections of this volume, in which Ruka’s disembodied head appears to float around the depths of the sea with Umi chasing after it.
Things really are surreal through quite a bit of this volume, and I’ll admit that most of the science is waaaaay over my head, but I’m drawn in by Ruka and Umi, and strangely by Anglade, a sort of young rogue scientist who is mostly unlikable but extremely compelling. He’s completely messed up, with no moral center, and his interest in Ruka and Umi is shockingly lacking in compassion, but wow, he’s fascinating.
This series can be difficult to follow at times, but if you’re willing to let yourself go, floating along with the current, so to speak, it’s an amazing ride. There’s something thrilling about the freedom Ruka and Umi experience underwater in this volume–I’m not sure I can explain it, but it makes me itch for the sea. It also has some of the most striking artwork I’ve seen in manga, which doesn’t hurt either.
MICHELLE: You know, the way you describe them exploring a surreal and amazingly depicted environment reminds me a bit of BLAME!, which I’ve been reading lately, even though the stories sound extreeeeemly different. BLAME! is the rare series I sought out to read because of its artwork. It sounds like Children of the Sea might be something similar.
MJ: The artwork is a huge draw, but I think even more than that I’m drawn to the wonder and darkness of the sea… not just in the artwork but in the narrative too. It’s mesmerizing.
MICHELLE: It sounds it.
MJ: And for all my talk of this volume’s surreal nature, I should mention, too, that quite a bit is revealed, plot-wise, including some real background on Umi and Sora’s origins. It’s not all waves and disembodied heads, I promise!