MICHELLE: Hey, MJ! What do a plum and an elephant have in common?
MJ: Wow, Michelle, I have no idea! What do a plum and an elephant have in common?
MICHELLE: They’re both purple! (Except for the elephant.)
MJ: Ahhhhhh, now this feels right. Starting off with a bad joke. That’s the stuff Off the Shelf is made of.
MICHELLE: Quite possibly nobody else enjoys it, but it is tradition, after all!
We’ve dusted off the shelf to discuss a few recent series, including one title that we both read. But would you like to go first with your solo read?
MJ: I’d love to!
So, nobody will be surprised to hear this, unless they’re just surprised that it took so long, but I’ve been reading the first two volumes of Platinum End, the latest from one of my favorite manga artists, Takeshi Obata, and his frequent collaborator, Tsugumi Ohba of whom I am historically much less fond. But, y’know, I love Obata and I’ll take what I can get, so here we go.
Mirai is graduating from middle school, but he couldn’t be more miserable. Orphaned at a young age and forced to live with abusive relatives, all he wants is to end it all. But when he tries to do that by jumping off his roof, the intervention of an angel, Nasse, drags him instead into a deadly, Highlander-style tournament in which he is competing with 12 other humans to win the chance to become the next God. Armed with a few special powers—angel’s wings, red arrows that work like a love spell, and white arrows that kill on contact—Mirai must prove that he’s worthy of inheriting the power of God.
Okay, so besides humiliatingly showing my age, the Highlander reference is also somewhat inaccurate, at least in theory. There is no rule in the angels’ truly weird competition that requires the God contestants to kill each other in order to win. But in Ohba’s pessimistic (and probably depressingly accurate) view of humanity, there is inevitably a candidate who immediately decides that the surest path to victory is to kill the other candidates, creating an atmosphere of terror and violence in the competition right from the start. Just as typical of an Ohba manga is the specificity of the powers’ rules—the red arrows only work for 30 days, for instance—and the competition’s built-in inequity. The angels choosing the candidates from among the downtrodden are not all created equal, and their contestants only inherit whatever powers their personal angel can also wield. Mirai, luckily, has a special-rank angel who can give him all three, but he’s a rarity in the bunch.
I’m talking a lot of plot here—also an Ohba trademark, of course—so let’s get down to the business of reviewing this thing. I generally expect to have a love-hate relationship with an Ohba/Obata manga, and my expectations were even lower going into this one, since I tend to be bored by angel stories. Interestingly, I get the sense that Obata might feel the same way, as his angel characters are the least imaginatively drawn in the series so far. But that said, I came away from these first two volumes actually hating very little.
Like most of Obata’s collaborations with Ohba, the story leans very heavily on plotting and strategy, but the real story seems to be about Mirai figuring out the point of living. Though his new wings give him a taste of personal freedom he’s never before enjoyed, his true liberation comes from the destruction of his abusive family, which he unwittingly causes, sending him into a guilt spiral and forcing him to confront questions of morality on a level most middle-schoolers are years away from having to think about outside of YA novels and video games. He’s made immediately aware of the consequences of his anger, and the cost of manipulating others with his new powers. Meanwhile, he’s learning to forgive the manipulation perpetrated by those weaker than he is, starting with his middle-school crush—herself a God candidate—whose weaker angel advises her to take pre-emptive actions against Mirai in order to protect herself.
Obviously I can’t be sure where this series is headed, but getting to read a new Takeshi Obata manga that doesn’t present me with either an utterly hateful protagonist or outrageous sexism right from the get-go feels like a treat.
MICHELLE: I, too, am bored by angel stories and I confess that I expected you were going to say you disliked it. Now my curiosity is piqued!
It seems, too, like there might be some symbolism in Mirai’s name, as “mirai” means future. And that’s really what’s on the line for him.
MJ: I think it might help on the angel front that the story is really not about them. Also, they are pretty strange, amoral beings who seem perfectly comfortable advancing a sort of hyper-selfish, Ayn Rand vision of individual happiness over all on behalf of their candidates, one of whom uses his newfound power to make swaths of female idols fall in love with him, so that he can spend his life immersed in a 24-7 orgy. Meanwhile, Mirai’s angel is utterly unable to comprehend why enacting bloody revenge on his horrible relatives, despite their Dickens-level villainy, does not make him happy.
The nature of God is equally ambiguous, especially since we’ve seen that only those who have already given up on humanity are actually eligible for the post. All of this plays into the creative team’s strengths, as it gives them a lot of morally gray material to work with (and lots of shonen-friendly competitiveness), while avoiding some of the things that sometimes makes their work unreadable (for me, anyway) by letting Mirai be our gateway character who is just as weirded out by most of this as we are.
It works for me, at least so far, which is a bit of a relief!
MICHELLE: Yeah, it really does sound pretty interesting! I will have to check it out.
MJ: I think the rest of the Battle Robot so far has not enjoyed it as much as I, so ymmv. But for me, this is a win.
So what have you been reading, Michelle? Something less morally ambiguous?
MICHELLE: Oh, indeed. Nothing is ambiguous about Welcome to the Ballroom, after all. It’s all about passion and determination!
Specifically, I’ve been reading volume three, but I’ll give you a short introduction to the series in case you’re not familiar. Fifteen-year-old Tatara Fujita had nothing that he was especially good at. When he is saved from bullies by a champion ballroom dancer named Sengoku, he doesn’t have the courage to tell the other man that he was actually looking at a part-time job advertisement and not a flyer for the dance studio. Once he sees a recording of Sengoku in action, looking confident and self-assured, he vows to change himself by also entering into the world of dancesport. It doesn’t hurt that his lovely classmate, Shizuka Hanaoka, is also one of the top amateurs.
In volume three, Fujita is competing in his first tournament. He’s also got a wager on the line with Shizuka’s bellicose new partner, Gaju, who has tossed aside his sister and longtime partner, Mako. Because he’s a newcomer, he lacks the stamina and repertoire of the others, and his attempts to beat Gaju are not successful. However, once he realizes that his real goal ought to be helping Mako outshine Shizuka (and thus convincing Gaju to partner with her once more), there’s a palpable shift in his performance. He goes from merely leading to becoming the “frame” for the “flower,” executing moves that allow Mako to shine to her best advantage.
I really enjoyed seeing how a ballroom dancing competition works, but what I found especially impressive was that Tomo Takeuchi’s art actually conveys this change in Tatara’s attitude. There was a tension in his earlier performances, when he was essentially taking full responsibility upon himself, and once he internalizes the notion of becoming the “frame,” his whole body language changes. It’s difficult to explain in words, but to be able to depict that difference in a way that even an utterly ignorant-of-dance person like me could pick up on is seriously cool.
MJ: For some truly unfathomable reason, I have yet to pick up this series, and I really can’t believe it. Everything you describe just sounds both dramatically exciting and fun. Making a story about dance work with only still drawings is a huge challenge, but when it works, it’s just spectacular. The visual storytelling sounds incredible, from what you describe.
MICHELLE: I think you’d like it quite a bit. Another thing that’s neat is that, unlike a lot of sports manga with a male protagonist, the female characters aren’t cheering on the sidelines or serving as the team manager. They’re co-competitors. And, in fact, it’s by Tatara allowing Mako full agency and achieving nonverbal yet total communication with her that the pair really attracts notice.
MJ: That’s definitely a welcome feature in a “sports” manga, and possibly the push I needed to get me to the bookstore!
MICHELLE: I hope you do check it out. And, of course, one generally doesn’t dance without music, which is my not-so-subtle segue into discussing our mutual read for this column. Would you like to do the introductory honors?
MJ: I will give it a go, sure! Our mutual read this week was the first volume of Ryoko Fukuyama’s Anonymous Noise, recently released on Viz’s Shojo Beat imprint.
Nino loves to sing with her best friend, neighbor, and habitual punster, Momo, but when his family suddenly moves away, she’s left with the fear of using her voice at all, as all she wants to do is scream. She finds momentary salvation in the company of Yuzu (who nicknames her “Alice” as a shortened version of her surname “Arisugawa”), a kid she finds writing songs on the beach, but he ends up disappearing on her, too, after he realizes he has no shot at living up to her dreamy memory of Momo.
Flash forward a few years, and these three are thrown back together in high school, where Yuzu is the main songwriter for an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed pop band, Nino is destined to become their new lead singer, and Momo is a mysterious dude befriended by Yuzu whom Nino hasn’t yet recognized. Also, the pop band (who sing all their songs while wearing face masks?) is operating incognito as the pop music club at their school, and Yuzu has super-long eyelashes, which is somehow a plot point.
I think that’s the best I can do, here. Michelle?
MICHELLE: That about sums it up! (The repeated eyelash references were especially odd.)
Anyway, I’m not really sure what I expected from Anonymous Noise, but it wasn’t quite this. To me, it reads almost breezy (with dumb jokes and kooky supporting characters) and a bit muddled, though it’s possible the storytelling will calm down some now that everyone is at high school together. Some elements of the story come through clearly, like Nino’s longing to see Momo and Yuzu again and the way that singing eases her pain. But unlike, say, NANA, I’m not getting much sense of what Yuzu’s band sounds like, or what Nino’s singing voice sounds like. We are shown its power to transfix others, but is it high? Is it low? Is it raw? Is it pure? No idea!
Another slightly muddled area for me was Momo’s and Yuzu’s reactions to seeing Nino again. Yuzu, it seems, didn’t want to see her because he has been wanting to escape his obsession with her, but there’s some disembodied narration that I think is Momo, also wishing that he could escape being in Nino’s thrall. Or something? How did you read that part?
MJ: I, too, found myself comparing it to NANA, which really isn’t fair at all. And, like you, I couldn’t exactly say what my expectations were for this manga, but whatever they were, I didn’t expect what we got, and what we got was largely disappointing. I’m willing to give it more time to come together, and I think it still could end up being interesting, but so far it’s kind of a vague mess, with a few clear elements as you describe. I feel like I’m the most interested in Yuzu at this point, but it’s really because he’s the character we’ve gotten the clearest read on so far. His needs and desires are fairly transparent, and he ends up being my favorite character just by default. I don’t think that was the author’s intention, though.
As for that section of narration near the end… I read it the same way as you did, but I didn’t really understand it. Is Nino’s voice the cage? And if so, why? Or was that Yuzu’s narration? I was pretty confused by that sequence, I have to admit.
Maybe the expectation that wasn’t met was an idea that somehow this was written for an older audience than it actually was?
MICHELLE: That may be it. I think I was expecting a story about a determined girl who’s serious about her band. And that’s not what this is, at all. Now, maybe Nino will grow into that kind of girl—Fukuyama does make a point of showing how terrible she is singing with others, and maybe that was laying a foundation for growth—but I kind of doubt it at this point. It seems like “music leads to Momo” will always be her true obsession rather than music for its own sake.
MJ: I long for that, I admit, and also perhaps a clearer idea of what any of the music sounds like, besides her childhood obsession with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” In my mind, it’s all kind of “Twinkle, Twinkle” at this point, and that is just not very compelling.
That said, I’ll definitely read the next installment.
MICHELLE: Haha, yes, exactly. I agree on all points.
MJ: And so we live in hope. Until next time?
MICHELLE: ‘Til then!