MJ: Good morning, Michelle! I’ve just returned from a long walk with the dog, and the brisk weather has made my hands stiff. It’s hard to type! I hope a hot cup of coffee will warm them up quickly.
MICHELLE: I’ve not been outside yet, but it’s looking more foggy than brisk. But so long as it doesn’t rain, I am content. Is it your turn to go first? What have you been reading this week?
MJ: Ah, ha! It is not my turn! And so I turn the microphone back to you. What have you been reading?
MICHELLE: Curses, foiled again! I suppose I have no choice but to talk about… Puzzles on an Isolated Island! This series debuted recently on JManga with relatively little fanfare, but once I noticed it was both shoujo and a mystery, I decided to check it out. Alas, it turned out to have the same problems other mysteries in manga form also struggle with.
First, the premise. Alice Arisugawa (male) is a second-year university student who belongs to his school’s mystery novel club, along with level-headed senior Jiro Egami and enthusiastic fellow second-year Maria Arima. When Maria shows the group a treasure map inherited from her puzzle-loving grandfather, with a wealth of diamonds as the prize, the trio ends up journing to Kashiki Island, where the Arima family has a villa, to attempt to solve the puzzle. Instead of being motivated by the diamonds, however, Maria mainly wants to finish the task that her cousin died attempting three years previously.
When they get to the “isolated” island, they find about a dozen different Arima family members and friends. In the grand tradition of mystery manga like Case Closed, each of these characters is introduced with a box stating their name and occupation. None of them has any depth whatsoever, though we do get a few clues about which pair used to be lovers, or which guy doesn’t get along with his father-in-law. Soon enough, a typhoon rolls in and a murderer uses the cover of a back door slamming in the wind to kill a pair of guests with a rifle. The deaths are utterly unaffecting, not just to readers but to the characters as well, who rather emotionlessly begin trying to solve the case. The one spark of warmth comes from Alice himself, who is beginning to realize that he may have feelings for Maria.
Puzzles on an Isolated Island is a short series, complete in three volumes, and for that reason I’ll probably read the other two volumes just to see how it ends. I’m always excited by mystery manga, but in the end I simply must conclude that prose really does have the advantage where mysteries are concerned.
MJ: That’s so interesting, because other than the evidence at hand, it doesn’t seem like it should be difficult to write a good mystery in graphic novel form, does it? Am I missing an obvious shortcoming of the medium?
MICHELLE: Maybe because of the way manga is consumed, creators are trying to move the story along more swiftly. And so, in order to do that, things like character get sacrificed in favor of clues and theorizing. Maybe one day we’ll get a deliciously long-form mystery manga—heck, maybe something like that exists already that I just don’t know about—which will prove me wrong (and happily so).
Anyway, now I can ask you what you’ve been reading this week!
MJ: You can indeed, and I’ll even tell you! One of my debut reads this week was the first volume of Yen Press’ The Infernal Devices: Clockwork Angel, adapted from Cassandra Clare’s novel, with art by Hyekyung Baek.
Set as a prequel to Clare’s series, The Mortal Instruments, The Infernal Devices takes place over 100 years earlier, in Victorian England. Its first novel, Clockwork Angel, tells the story of Tessa Gray, a young woman who leaves New York to join her brother Nate in London, after the death of their aunt, with whom Tessa has lived since she and Nate lost their parents. When she arrives, she is informed that her brother has sent two women to meet her in his place, followed by a couple of fairly rude awakenings—the cold weather and her imminent kidnapping. The women lock her up and subject her to a series of experiments intended to force Tessa into using a special talent she was not even aware she possessed—the ability to change her shape into that of another person, living or dead, by holding an object that belongs to them.
Fortunately, Tessa’s captivity ends relatively quickly, as she’s rescued by a brash seventeen-year-old named Will Herondale, part of a group of “Shadowhunters,” who fight demons in the mortal world. Will takes Tessa back to the Shadowhunters’ “Institute,” where Tessa learns more about her abilities and suffers further shock when she eventually discovers her brother’s true motivations.
As a fan of supernatural shoujo manga, a story like The Infernal Devices contains nearly everything I’m most accustomed to as a reader. It’s got a slew of attractive characters with various supernatural abilities, a lovely period setting, and two rival love interests—one dark and dangerous, one comfortable and kind. Both love interests have poignant histories, of course, and both are extremely pretty. The trappings are so perfect, in fact, they come very close to feeling contrived. Fortunately, Clare just manages to save her story with some genuinely interesting characterization. And though Tessa begins as a bit of a cipher, she gains some real agency as the story goes on, and even pulls out the trick that saves the day at the end of the first volume.
Less fortunately, the series’ Victorian setting inevitably invites comparison with Yen’s other recent supernatural novel adaptation, Gail Carriger’s Soulless, which is far stronger—or at least makes a stronger impression with its debut volume. Like The Infernal Devices, Soulless introduces a supernatural society within its historical setting, complete with a sexy love interest (just one in Carriger’s case) and the usual romantic elements, but Soulless‘ awesomely capable heroine, Alexia, blows poor Tessa away. Hopefully The Infernal Devices‘ next volume will help narrow that gap a bit.
MICHELLE: I confess that I couldn’t get beyond the summary on this one, mostly because I am so beyond weary of supernatural organizations with names like “the Shadowhunters.” I got to that point and went, “Ugh, no.” I’m glad to hear that it’s better than I’d expected, though!
MJ: I can definitely relate to your weariness, and it was rather grudgingly that I accepted my own enjoyment of this volume. I think you’d enjoy it, too!
So, once again we have a mutual read on the docket for this week. Michelle, would you like to do the introductory honors?
MICHELLE: I will give it a whirl!
So, this week we both checked out the new 2-in-1 omnibus reissue of Yun Kouga’s Loveless, formerly licensed by TOKYOPOP and recently rescued by VIZ. In addition to continuing the series from where it left off with their release of volume nine, VIZ is also going back and publishing the first eight volumes, as well. I had a few volumes of this hanging around from the TOKYOPOP days, but had never read them, so this was a great opportunity to finally check things out. Going into this, I knew three things about Loveless: 1. There is a boy with cat ears, and these ears will vanish along with his virginity. 2. This boy’s elder brother has died. 3. This boy gets into suggestive situations with an adult guy who was a friend of his brother. And, really, that about sums it up, though there are nuances to embellish upon.
Ritsuka Aoyagi is twelve and has just transferred into a new school. He’s blunt and standoffish and has more than his share of problems. His mother is crazy and abusive and has refused to believe for the past couple of years that Ritsuka is really her son. Seimei, Ritsuka’s older brother, used to act as a buffer, but now he is gone, murdered by an organization called Septimal Moon. It’s this loneliness that leads Ritsuka to come to depend so much on Soubi, his brother’s former partner in the battle against said organization. Soubi’s a college student, and he and Ritsuka get very close very quickly. Though Ritsuka is upset to learn that Seimei commanded Soubi to love Ritsuka, he can’t help wanting to see him. Aside from a couple of brief kisses, their relationship is chaste, and Soubi claims not to have sexual interest in someone Ritsuka’s age, but it is kind of disturbing all the same.
Balancing this out is Ritsuka’s growing friendship with Yuiko, a cheerful girl who was determined to befriend him no matter how many times he rebuffed her. She’s the bright spot in the manga, though I get the feeling some Tohru Honda-esque tragedy in her backstory is just around the corner.
MJ: Well done! I have a feeling I’m enjoying this series more than you are, but given some of the relationship stuff, this doesn’t really surprise me. And on that note, I’ll jump right into the sort-of-disturbing relationship between Ritsuka and Soubi. While I certainly had the initial reaction of, “Whoa… this is kind of creepy,” I ultimately found it… well, really not very creepy at all, which led me to analyzing why that might be—and I think I figured it out!
More than anything, the Soubi/Ritsuka dynamic reminds me of a slightly more explicit (and by “explicit” I really just mean that they’ve kissed) version of the relationship between Shugo Chara!‘s eleven-year-old heroine, Amu, and high school senior Ikuto, who is set up from the beginning as a viable love interest (and eventually really becomes one later on). The main reason that Amu and Ikuto’s relationship never felt creepy to me is that it feels like the kid‘s fantasy, not the adult’s. Young girls will always fantasize about older boys/men, and in both Shugo Chara! and Loveless, one of the ways in which it seems to be clearly the younger character’s fantasy, is that it’s the older character (and only the older character) who is sexualized. Both Amu and Ritsuka are drawn as regular kids—there are no (in Amu’s case) panty shots or skimpy outfits or strategically “sexy” camera angles. They look like kids and they act like kids, and there’s nothing sexualized about it. The older characters, on the other hand, are the ones who receive the shoujo fanservice treatment. They are pretty and lithe and attractively fashionable. They glide around in a catlike manner, looking pretty as girls in the manner of nearly every teen idol in history. We’re asked to find them sexy and intriguing, but they ultimately feel safe in some way. It’s a young girl’s fantasy, through and through. The only real difference here is the addition of a BL element, which just kinda reveals Kouga’s personal proclivities more than anything else.
And speaking of Kouga’s proclivities… wow there is a lot going on here. There’s so much going on, in fact, that it comes close to being a train wreck, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that there is no train wreck I love more than a Yun Kouga train wreck. And this, I think, really comes down to characterization. Like a couple of my other Kouga favorites, Crown of Love and (the very different) Gestalt, the strength of the story is that everyone is really interesting. Even when she’s adhering to standard tropes (in this case, BL and shoujo tropes), Kouga doesn’t write standard characters. Everyone in Loveless is kind of a weirdo, in the same way as most actual people are weirdos. They have layers of sometimes-contradictory issues, little idiosyncrasies, both attractive and unattractive flaws—and these are all a real part of the story.
I’ll just pick a couple of my favorite characters here, beginning with Yuiko, whom you also like. I rather adore Yuiko, who at first appears to be a sort of standard “dumb girl” character, set up to help us root for the BL relationship, but really, she’s seriously awesome. She has her own quirks and her own complicated personal life, but she’s a true friend to Ritsuka and obviously someone who can be counted on. I fell for her immediately. Also, I’m very fond of Ritsuka himself, whose plight is really pretty awful. Not only has he taken over his brother’s role as a “sacrifice” in this supernatural battle of words he’s suddenly a part of, but his “true” name, “Loveless,” stands in painful contrast to his brother’s, “Beloved.” And this is the life he’s lived for the past few years, too. Having completely lost the memory of whomever “Ritsuka” was before, he lives with his mother’s grief over that loss every day, to the point that he’s started to believe that he somehow deserves her abuse, while also feeling a combination of terror and relief over the prospect that he, the current version of Ritsuka, might just disappear at any moment. His obsession with taking photos of everyone in his life and “making memories” with them is so desperate and poignant, I could die.
Obviously I’m liking this series a lot, heh. Which is odd, perhaps, but not unexpected, given its source.
MICHELLE: Though I was a bit snarky in my introduction, the truth is that I actually really am enjoying this, too. You’re absolutely right about all of the characters being interesting, and I too find the way Ritsuka perks up at the prospect of making memories (even with people he doesn’t really like) to be completely endearing. I like, too, that instead of being angry at his mom for her treatment of him, as my logical adult mind would dictate, he’s still extremely concerned for her and worries about what will happen to her if even this version of Ritsuka should disappear. He endures her abuse—sidebar: grr, I hate his useless father, who refuses to intervene—and yet comes away from that with the absolute conviction that he is never going to raise his hand against anyone.
Y’know, it occurs to me this is somewhat the opposite of Puzzles on an Isolated Island. Where that series is low on character, high on clues, Loveless is strong on character, and not forthcoming at all with clues. After two volumes, we still know practically nothing about Septimal Moon, or what the “plot” really is, but who cares? It’s still absorbing because of the characters. It’s not unlike Pandora Hearts in that way.
MJ: Yes! The father! Ugh. I’m so with you on that. And you make an excellent comparison there between Loveless and Puzzles on an Isolated Island, and also Pandora Hearts. I guess it’s obvious by now that out of those scenarios, I can get by on a skimpy (or confusing) plot more easily than I can on skimpy characterization, which makes me easy prey for a writer like Yun Kouga. I admit I kinda can’t wait for more.
MICHELLE: Even though I might be a little more restless for info—and a little more creeped out by… you know, I’m not sure it’s even Ritsuka and Soubi’s relationship so much as certain panels depicting them—I am generally quite content with the blend of elements in Loveless. Pleasantly surprised, really. I guess this is a case of us not knowing what we were missing ’til it wasn’t missing anymore!
MJ: Well said, Michelle!