MICHELLE: So, I have these two boy kitties who have had a personality/territory conflict for going on two years now. And now, suddenly, they are sleeping peacefully next to each other on an ottoman. I can only conclude that this is a Christmas miracle.
MICHELLE: Maybe it’s a body-heat issue, but I would be so happy if they actually became friends.
Anyway, what better way to celebrate surviving the longest night of the year (not to mention the Mayan apocalypse) than devoting our final column of the year to two recently released short-story collections? I’m speaking of The Devil Is So Cute by Takako Shimura (JManga) and Kaoru Mori: Anything and Something (Yen Press). It just seemed natural to me to pair these together, since Shimura and Mori are women artists writing primarily for the seinen demographic.
MJ: What better way indeed? Now, I’ll admit that the collection of short manga tends to be one of my least favorite formats (it beats out 4-koma, but only by a hair), so I went into this with a sort of grudging sense of duty, but both collections offered up some interesting insight into their creators, so it was definitely worthwhile.
MICHELLE: Yeah, I don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for the medium itself, but it was at least neat to see how these different artists approached short stories. (With varying results, I suspect, due to the nature of the magazines in which the stories ran.)
Would you care to introduce one of the collections?
MJ: Sure! I’ll start with Shimura’s, which, of the two, is the most typical of the format. Pulling from one-shots originally published in magazines like Comic High! and Jump SQ between 2004 and 2009 (along with one extra chapter added specifically for the collection), The Devil Is So Cute covers a range of subjects from the existence of witches to childhood crushes, though when you get right down to it, they’re really all about relationships—particularly those between family members and close friends.
The book’s title story, for instance, about a young boy, Megumu, who meets a woman claiming to be a witch, is really telling the story of the boy’s strained relationship with his very strict father. The witch, Nozomi, who has the ability to be accepted as anyone she wants, in any role she wants—she appears as Megumu’s sister, teacher, pediatrician, you name it—is there to bring them closer together, but she could easily be read as a figment of Megumu’s imagination, as it’s Megumu and his father, ultimately who do all the work. It’s a whimsical story with a serious purpose, which makes it a pretty terrific read.
One theme that comes up more than once in the collection is that of first love—not the sweet, mushy, teen romance kind that tends to be the stuff of shoujo manga, but the unrequited childhood crushes that I think are pretty relatable for most of us—viewed both during and after the fact. “My Summer Vacation,” for instance, tells the story of a young girl whose crush on the man who works at her local public bath leads her to pretend she’s doing a research report on bathing so that she can justify talking to him, over and over. It’s a pretty adorable, light-hearted story, unlike the somewhat darker “Unworthy Son,” which chronicles one young man’s horror as his father remarries to a teacher whom he had crushed on so heavily as a student that she’d inspired him to draw a manga about her.
Some of the stories are more whimsical than others, and some are definitely stronger than others, but there’s a lot of range in this collection, which helps to keep it interesting.
MICHELLE: Y’know, it hadn’t actually occurred to me that Nozomi might be imaginary! That’s an interesting spin on things. But yes, I really appreciated that the story is actually about the father-son relationship—with their inability to communicate depicted with distressing accuracy—instead of witches and magic.
Another theme of the collection, sometimes operating hand-in-hand with “first love,” is that of the struggling manga artist so busy working as an assistant for others that he/she has no time to devote to their own work. But is that truly the case, or are they just using that as an excuse for not pursuing their own dreams? In “One Day,” a would-be mangaka runs into her former crush when she goes out drinking after meeting a deadline. In the past, she had declared her intentions to create manga on a whim, but has failed to find the dedication necessary to make that happen. Similarly on a whim, she confesses her feelings to him in the present and now suddenly wants to resume drawing. In “Unworthy Son,” the protagonist is in a similar situation, never having success with any of the portfolios he submits. He’s on the verge of calling it quits when he too is compelled to carry on by the weight of others’ expectations.
This ties in with yet another theme, which is jealousy of a friend’s talent. This idea is present in “Unworthy Son” but also in “Transformation,” in which a woman dreams that her successful novelist friend has died in an accident and comes out of the experience not exactly transformed, but at least a little more willing to be honest about her feelings, if not completely at peace with them.
MJ: Yes, I thought all the stories about mangaka—and particularly about mangaka who weren’t making a living drawing their own stories—were really interesting and insightful. And while I don’t want to presume that Shimura is writing from her own experience (certainly she is a successful mangaka), I think it would be fair to say that she’s writing something she knows, either from observing others, or from her own, hidden insecurities which of course we all have. In any case, it reads as thoughtful and authentic. It’s one of the strengths of the collection.
So, on to Kaoru Mori, then? Would you care to do the introductory honors?
So, as opposed to Shimura, who is writing about things she knows, Kaoru Mori seems to be writing about things she likes (or that her audience likes). And since she is known for liking maids a lot, it’s no surprise that there are a few of them here, though there are also some teens and some alluring older ladies as well.
So, you’ve got your kooky maids/servants—the staff in “Welcome to the Mansion, Master!” wants a new master so they can continue to enjoy the creature comforts of their swanky surroundings while the titular maid in “Miss Claire’s Ordinary Daily Life” is the only one to stand by her witless master, going so far as to beat up a robber whilst clad in her nightgown—as well as your fussily affectionate ones (“Maudlin Baker”). The alluring older ladies are found in a pair of stories—”The Swimsuit Bought Long Ago” and “Burrow Gentlemen’s Club”—that share the same storytelling trick, where the main character replies (in square boxes instead of dialogue bubbles) to a man speaking off-panel. I actually thought “Burrow” was the most intriguing story of the whole collection, but because it’s so short, it’s more of a tease than an actual mystery.
Speaking of teases and alluring ladies, it must be said that while there are maids, ladies in swimsuits, and ladies in Playboy-esque bunny attire in this volume, somehow it doesn’t feel super fanservicey to me. I think it’s because Mori keeps the proportions of these characters (even “Cover Story,” which is essentially the four-page sequence of a girl with a bedonkadonk straddling a tree branch to look at a bird) realistic, so it’s more like a celebration of their overall sexiness than an exaggeration of certain anatomical attributes.
MJ: I agree completely! Obviously many of these were drawn as alluring shorts and single-page illustrations for men to enjoy, but her style when she’s drawing women in bunny outfits or swimsuits reminds me of nothing more than old-fashioned bathing beauties from the first half of the 20th century, back when realistic bodies were still considered beautiful. While it’s possible I’d find them scandalous if I lived back in that time, as a woman in 2012, I actually just find it… refreshing.
Anything and Something strikes me as much less a standard collection of shorts than is The Devil Is So Cute, though this isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. On one hand, it’s a much less polished collection. Not all of the shorts are completed stories—and even a few of those that are feel a little half-baked. “Sumire’s Flowers,” for instance (for which Mori only provided the illustrations), begins as an intriguing look at rival student artists, but then devolves into a weird morality tale about adultery. On the other hand, many of Mori’s little scraps of ideas are more inspired than entire volumes of some long-running manga. “Burrow Gentleman’s Club” is a great example of that. I’d love to read a more complete version of that story, but even the snippet we’re given here is well worth the page space! The book’s overall tone is casual enough to encompass a lot of tiny experiments and bursts of whimsy without the slightest strain, so these bits and pieces fit together nicely.
Is it wrong that my favorite bits in this book are Mori’s little autobiographical strips, afterwards, and thank-yous, tacked on between chapters? Honestly, I’d have picked up the book for those alone.
MICHELLE: Those are lots of fun, and the extensive illustration gallery (with notes) in the back is simply gorgeous. So yes, even if this is less polished (I was baffled by bits of “Sumire’s Flowers,” too) or complete (I want more “Burrow”!) than Shimura’s collection, it’s still definitely worth checking out!