Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with MJ & Michelle! I’m joined, once again, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
MICHELLE: Ne, ne, MJ? Know what’s awesome? Manga is awesome. I was experiencing the slightest sense of “meh” about manga last weekend, and then I read House of Five Leaves and I am cured.
MJ: Oh, those moments of renewal are so fantastic, aren’t they? And House of Five Leaves is certainly up to the task.
MICHELLE: Definitely. I hope you feel similarly about what you read this week!
MJ: You know, I do. Maybe not as dramatically, but I’ve had a very good week in manga so far.
MJ: My first read this week is the final volume of Yun Kouga’s Crown of Love, a fairly dark josei romance, published here under Viz’s Shojo Beat imprint.
What’s been fascinating about this series from the beginning is the starkly intimate view Kouga provides of her characters’ darkest impulses, particularly those of the story’s protagonist, Hisayoshi. His stalker-like obsession with teen idol Rima has been consistently riveting, mainly because we’ve been privy not only to its creepiest aspects, but also to Hisayoshi’s own reflections on just how creepy they really are. This heightened self-awareness on the part of its characters is what makes the story really work. It also forces us to acknowledge our own creepiest thoughts, which, though perhaps not exactly desirable, is certainly effective.
When I discussed volume three back in July, I expressed some concern that the story might be headed for a more conventional conclusion. And though this does indeed come to pass, I’m happy to report that it doesn’t really make things any less complicated, even to the end.
What this series ultimately succeeds at pointing out is that love is essentially a pretty creepy thing. And though I’m not sure that’s a philosophy I’d personally want to live by, it’s not exactly wrong, either. Despite its obvious emotional focus, this is a series that analyzes itself and its characters constantly, from the inside out. The fact that its conclusions are disturbing is pretty much undeniable. They’re also uncomfortably (and remarkably) true. :)
This kind of psychologically-heavy romance won’t be for everyone, but despite the fact that it’s one of the least romantic romances I’ve ever read, it’s definitely for me. Normally, I’d spend a lot of my time with a series analyzing its characters and their personal motivations. Kouga does it for me, and in a surprisingly organic way. What more could I possibly ask?
MICHELLE: Well, to me that sounds absolutely fascinating. I’ve been holding off until volume four’s release so that I can gobble the entire series up at once, but I’m sure I will love it.
Interestingly, this tale of obsession reminds me of the unhealthy and unwise fascination Masa, the protagonist of House of Five Leaves, feels for the charismatic kidnapper who has employed him. Not that I intend to link everything back to that work, but it seems like they might share a similar vibe.
MJ: Well, it would be a mistake to imagine that Crown of Love is as sophisticated as House of Five Leaves, and I would never want to imply that it is. Not that it’s fair to compare the two–they’re really so different. But in terms of Hisayoshi’s obsession, I’d say it’s more… primitive than Masa’s. It’s overtly sexual and intensely immature, which is not unexpected considering his age, and there’s no denying that it’s pretty crude.
MICHELLE: Ah, I see. It still sounds a lot different from the other romances around. Which can’t be said for one of the things I was gonna talk about this week!
MJ: Do elaborate!
MICHELLE: The romance of which I speak is Maid Sama!, specifically its fifth and sixth volumes. I didn’t expect to like this series much when I started it, but, like you’ve talked about yourself in the past, I found myself so charmed by the lead characters that I am able to overlook the frequently ridiculous plotting. How ridiculous? Well…
Female lead Misaki is the student council president of Seika High, where 80% of the student body is male. She’s known as the “demon president” for her strict enforcement of school rules, but has a secret: she works part-time at a maid cafe called Maid Latte. In volume five, a representative from a big corporation shows up and announces that he’s going to buy the building in which Maid Latte is located, demolish it, and open an upscale butler cafe. The staff freaks out, believing they’ll have to close, and Misaki decides to take matters in her own hands. Disguised as a boy, she infiltrates a job interview for the butler cafe, and actually utters the line, “I hereby vow to protect Maid Latte from our arch-nemesis, the butler cafe, at this footman audition!” Wacky hijinks ensue, and of course the corporate dude is so impressed by Misaki’s sincerity or something that he decides to go with another location. It takes ages to occur to anyone that maybe they could just, like, relocate or something. It’s really pretty dumb.
But… the “story so far” page describes Misaki as “indomitable,” and that is really true. She’s determined to save the cafe, and while I can’t really care much about that, I do care that when her antagonist/love interest Usui is injured (through another completely random plot contrivance) it actually derails her plans. That is extremely rare for Misaki—though not so for other shoujo heroines, I’m sure—and so very significant. Misaki’s feelings for Usui have been developing at the perfect speed, slowly enough to feel believable but quickly enough to be satisfying. To see her actually abandon a goal in order to ensure that he gets medical attention is a big step forward.
Volume six has more of the same lame plotting, introducing a former childhood friend of Misaki’s who has returned with the intention of declaring his love (I can think of half a dozen series off the top of my head that use this same gimmick), but also offers some tiny, tiny hints into Usui’s heretofore mysterious past.
While I know that each new volume of Maid Sama! is probably going to make me groan aloud at some point, I am nonetheless certain that I am going to have to read each one as it comes out because I simply need to know how the relationship between Misaki and Usui develops!
MJ: Okay, I have to admit that even your description here makes this series seem, well, utterly disinteresting. Heh. But the fact that you’re enjoying it anyway forces me to pay more attention than I ever would otherwise. I mean, you’re kinda hooked, right?
MICHELLE: Right. Misaki is smart and strong, and although she might be a little spazzy sometimes, is also occasionally cool and kind of chivalrous. Usui is one of those smirking, teasing types who are mysteriously good at everything, but he lives all alone in a barely furnished high-rise apartment, and it seems that Misaki is really the one thing in life he cares about. I have no doubt I’d like this series a lot more if the plots were better, but they’re not so bad that they ruin what enjoyment there is to be derived from the leads’ interaction.
MJ: Hmmmm, emotionally mysterious love interest is often enough to draw me in. That could do the trick.
MICHELLE: I mean, I’m not trying to argue that it’s the best thing ever, but it’s certainly better than one might suppose. :)
What else have you got this week?
MJ: Moving away from romance, this week I finally read the third volume of Chi’s Sweet Home. This series is a favorite for both of us, I know, so I’m sure you felt as anxious as I did through this surprisingly harrowing volume!
The family’s landlady is on the rampage in this volume, determined to discover who is hiding a cat. The so-called “bear-cat” features heavily here, first luring Chi into petty crime (the ill-conceived theft of a neighbor’s fried chicken), then deftly guiding her through a chase sequence so tense, I felt like I was witnessing the escape of a feline Jean Valjean, forever to be pursued by upright Landlady Javert.
This really is an emotional little volume. As cute as Chi is, and as light as the story often can be, when the tough moments hit, they hit hard, without mercy. I’m still haunted by the pathetic image of poor little Chi, too depressed to even eat when she’s locked up inside after her close call with the landlord. It’s the saddest thing, really. The situation is distressing for both Chi and her family, but their inability to communicate with each other makes the whole thing feel honestly tragic.
As in the series’ earlier volumes, it’s Kanata’s artwork that does most of the heavy lifting, from humor to drama, and back to humor again. As simple as much of the drawing is, it’s hard to think of a character in any manga with a face and body language as expressive as Chi’s. I’m constantly impressed by how specific Kanata’s choices are and how effectively they’re executed.
MICHELLE: Oh, that image of Chi’s tiny, tiny self against the window into the huge world she’s no longer allowed to explore… I found her parting with Blackie quite affecting, too.
That said, I did find some parts of this volume kind of annoying, like the tendency of the Yamada family to leave their sliding glass door open! If the landlady is prowling about and you don’t want her to spot your kitty, perhaps one might close the doors? I know, I know, this is my own tendency to allow niggling little details to distract me from all of the good things a series may have to offer, but seriously. Irksome!
MJ: You know, I always just assumed that was simply due to their inexperience as pet owners. In my experience, people who have never lived with pets are often slow to realize that they have to adjust their own habits in order to keep them (or their own belongings safe). I remember how frustrated I used to get with one of my roommates in New York, because she would leave a full glass of water balancing precariously on the edge of a low table and then be confused and upset when one of the cats knocked it on the floor.
As a long-time cat owner, I was always aware of the fact that I lived with cats whenever I put anything down in the house, so it was just habit for me to place a glass as far from the edge of a table as possible, and it drove me crazy that she didn’t catch on to that. But though she honestly loved the cats, it was simply not on her radar. I’ve seen a lot of her in Chi’s family over the course of the first three volumes.
MICHELLE: You know, you may be right. My husband was complaining just the other day that he found the cap to his thumb drive out in the living room, but rather than blame a mischievous kitty my main thought was, “Well, you shouldn’t have left it just lying around!”
MJ: It’s time for us to face facts, Michelle. They’re just not as smart as we are. ;)
MICHELLE: I’m not sure who you’re talking about, but I’m just going to sidestep that one and talk about Saturn Apartments!
In this seinen sci-fi series from VIZ, humanity has fled Earth and now lives in a ring encircling it. The rich folk in the “upper levels” despise those from the “lower levels” and it’s hard for anyone from the latter to advance to a better life. Mitsu has just finished school and started working as a window washer, the same job his father performed before his disappearance (and presumed demise) in an accident five years ago.
I described the first volume as a “low-key dystopia,” and that still holds true here, but I found the second volume to be a lot more warm and homey than the first. Perhaps it’d be accurate to say that the first volume does a lot to set up the world while the second delves more into the characters. There’s lots of socialization going on, particularly between Mitsu and older characters who knew his dad and are able to answer his questions and reply when he asks if he’s becoming anything like his father. Some of these interactions are very funny, too—when Mitsu can’t think of anything to say to his father’s reticent former partner, Tamachi, he desperately asks him about his favorite food, which begins a running gag about Tamachi’s undying love of eggs.
I also really love how mangaka Hisae Iwaoka portrays the ring. Rooms belonging to the rich are huge and airy. Spaces in the lower levels are cramped and stacked upon each other to cram as many people in as possible. The middle spaces—common ground used for many municipal functions—are especially fascinating, as they almost look like the real outside. In one scene, Mitsu’s taking a train ride with his partner’s wife and, for a moment, it really looks like they’re traveling through a prairie or something… until one notices the ceiling.
I would have loved Saturn Apartments if it had always stayed this meandering, slice-of-life story about one boy’s personal growth, but a few comments about mysterious search parties on Earth’s surface suggest that a larger story will eventually develop. I’m interested, but hope it won’t mean that scenes of Mitsu sharing good times with his coworkers will be sacrificed.
MJ: Oh, the way you describe both the atmosphere and the relationships between these characters, I can really imagine the “warm and homey” vibe you mention. For some reason, I find it especially enjoyable (and revealing) when characters talk about food. I’m so glad you mentioned the food. I have wanted to delve into this story since the first volume came out, but I just hadn’t found the time. Now I simply must!
MICHELLE: It’s especially fun here because Mitsu is initially rather intimidated by Tamachi, but this seemingly random question turns out to be just the right one to get Tamachi talking.
Not everything is warm and homey—there’s one window cleaner who dislikes Mitsu, for example—and times are pretty hard for some characters, but they do their best to be happy with their lives and provide for their families. It’s not a depressing read at all, and I can’t believe that I now have to wait until May for more! Well, unless I visit the SigIKKI site, that is…
MJ: It’s hard to resist those tempting little chapters…
MICHELLE: It is, but the production on this series is especially lovely—one can unfurl the whole cover (French flaps and all) and get one long vertical scene of some lower-level buildings—and it’s a real treat to read a physical copy. Online just isn’t the same.
MJ: We’ll be relics someday, you realize… shaking our canes at those digital-obsessed kids, doomed to meet our demise under the weight of a thousand overstuffed bookcases. ;)
MICHELLE: Yep. I’m already feeling curmudgeonly because I honestly cannot tell you who a lot of current celebrities are. Who are Nick and Vanessa? Why does their engagement merit a headline on CNN? I have no clue.
MJ: The police will shake their heads, sadly, when they finally discover our bodies. “Too many books,” they’ll say, sighing heavily.
MICHELLE: At least we’ll have died happy.