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Off the Shelf: Destruction, Despair, & Other Stories

MICHELLE: Hey, Melinda! Did you hear about the fire at the circus?

MELINDA: Why, no, Michelle. What about the fire at the circus?

MICHELLE: It was in tents!

MELINDA: Ba-dum-dum *chick*. Wow. That one was especially painful. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

MICHELLE: I take it as such!

So, read any interesting manga lately?

MELINDA: Indeed I have! First of all, I was finally able to dig into one of my most eagerly anticipated releases this year, Osamu Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects, out recently from Vertical.

I chose Human Insects as a Pick of the Week just over a month ago, and at the time my expectation was that it would “be one of those books that blows me away with its artistry while simultaneously killing me with its outlook on humanity.” I’m pleased to say that the latter was actually not the case at all, which made this an even more enthralling experience than I expected.

Just barely into her twenties, Toshiko Tomura is already a revered and accomplished artist in more fields than most of us will even dabble in over the course of our lifetimes, let alone master. She’s won prestigious awards in both writing and design, after already having achieved notoriety as a dazzling stage actress. What Tezuka soon reveals, is that she’s acquired all of these accomplishments by attaching herself to brilliant mentors and absorbing their talent and creativity to the point of effectively making them her own. She’s a gorgeous, seductive monster, consuming the lives of everyone she touches and leaving them (sometimes literally) for dead.

I often have difficulty enjoying a story in which I don’t like the protagonist, so what was particularly astounding about Toshiko for me, is that Tezuka was occasionally able to make me root for her, as horrifying as that seems. There’s no thought of “redemption” here—no romantic transformation or even mercy to be found in Toshiko’s trajectory. She’s more Becky Sharp than Cordelia Chase, and Tezuka is far more brutal to his anti-heroine’s victims than Thackeray ever was. Yet she’s so full of life and the brilliant spark of desire, it’s impossible not to fall for Toshiko just a little bit, even against one’s own will.

The book is every bit as scathing as I expected, but there’s an exuberance to Tezuka’s writing here that keeps it from sinking into real darkness. You get the sense that he’s been seduced by Toshiko too, and in the end, he treats her with more respect and even affection than, say, a character like Ayako, who is (presumably) intended to evoke our sympathy. It’s complicated, and certainly not as morally straightforward, but much more compelling overall.

Coming at Tezuka’s work from a modern, feminist point of view can sometimes be difficult, but The Book of Human Insects was a true pleasure for me, from start to finish. I highly recommend it.

MICHELLE: Wow, that Becky Sharp comparison really sums up her character in a nutshell. I am immensely pleased that you enjoyed this so much because I’ve been eying it with some trepidation since Ayako proved to be so misanthropic. Maybe I’ve no need to be wary after all!

MELINDA: I think you’ll enjoy this, Michelle, I really do. And I find myself even more excited now to dig into Princess Knight, not because I expect it to be remotely similar, but because I’m finally convinced that I can trust Tezuka with a female protagonist.

So what have you been reading this week?

MICHELLE: Nothing so deep as Tezuka, but enjoyable reads nonetheless.

First up is the eleventh volume of Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei, a shounen comedy about a perpetually despairing teacher named Nozomu Itoshiki and his students, each of whom is possessed of a specific plight or personality trait (indebted housewife, fujoshi, etc.).

I know you’ve read a fair amount of this series, so you’re familiar with its pattern. Essentially, each chapter opens with the characters spending a couple of pages in a particular scene. Like, for example, going to the beach on summer holidays. Then something triggers Itoshiki and off he goes, ranting about this or the other, eventually spewing out lists of transgressors until he is interupted by Kafuka, a student with a more positive outlook on things. There are recurring visual gags as well, like how Itoshiki’s sister is always first glimpsed with her back to the reader, or the absolutely miserable-looking dog with a stick in its butt.

Zetsubou-sensei is at its best when focusing on universal issues, and there are definitely chapters in that vein in this volume. Alas, there are also quite a few that seem very Japanese-centric, with the result that I enjoyed this volume somewhat less than its immediate predecessors. Still, it’s fun and I will keep reading and hoping that someone will help that wretched dog.

MELINDA: It’s nice to know that you’re still enjoying this series, Michelle, even if you found this volume less accessible than some. I’m always torn when it comes to gag manga, because I find it difficult to remain engaged when nothing really changes for the characters over time. But this series weathers that issue better than most for me. I’m glad you’re having a similar experience.

MICHELLE: For me, too. I tried reading Dr. Slump, for instance, and though I liked Toriyama’s COWA! and Sand Land quite a lot, the all-gag-all-the-time nature of Dr. Slump was just too much for me. Zetsubou is somehow different. Maybe it’s because it gradually evolves a little; I always like when a face is added to another student in the class, for example. This latest school year (Itoshiki’s students are doomed to perpetually repeat their second year of high school) saw a boy transfer into the class and much has been made of his outlandish fashion sense, so that’s pretty fun. And, of course, the art is attractive and the covers are gorgeous, so there’s that in its favor as well.

What else have you been reading?

MELINDA: My second read this week was in a completely different vein than the first, though it’s also been a Pick of the Week. I am speaking of the latest re-release of X (formerly X/1999), CLAMP’s ambitious, action-packed follow-up to my favorite of their series, Tokyo Babylon.

Now, as I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a much bigger fan of Tokyo Babylon, which I read long before I ever started X, and I think on some level I’ve always blamed X for simply not being Tokyo Babylon. These new 3-in-1 volumes are so gorgeous to look at, though, I hoped the fresh look might grant the series a second chance to impress me on its own terms.

While I’m not sure I’ve been fully impressed by the series this time around, I’m certainly enjoying it much, much more, and not just because it looks so pretty (though it really, really does). What’s really happened for me, though, is that Viz’s bigger, better presentation has given X a level of physical grandeur that finally matches its tone. X is a sweeping, epic production in every way possible. Everything in the story—emotion, action, plot—all of it occurs on a grand scale. It’s a never-ending symphony of love, hate, creation, and destruction. There are no half-measures in X, for better or worse.

Reading Viz’s “shojo” editions (and even their slightly larger original editions), I found this level of melodrama a bit hard to take. It was dark and sweeping, sure, but I found myself rolling my eyes at much of the grander drama and becoming impatient with its slow-moving plot. The stark intimacy of Tokyo Babylon was nowhere to be found, replaced by endless philosophizing on world destruction that appeared hollow at its core, at least to my eyes.

Now, with the series’ drama laid out in a visual form at least as grand and sweeping as its multi-layered plot, the entire pace of the manga has changed for me, and with it, its heartbeat, which I could barely discern before. Suddenly I’m able to deeply immerse myself in the world CLAMP has created, and enjoy the melodrama from within, rather than watching it from above. And honestly, it’s made all the difference in the world. Suddenly I care about these characters and their epic conflict, and I’m not just waiting around for Subaru to turn up so I’d have someone to give a crap about.

X may still not be my very favorite of CLAMP’s work, but I feel that I finally understand its charm. Bravo, Viz. I look forward to more.

MICHELLE: You know, I watched the X anime and really liked it, but when it came to the manga, I never got beyond the first volume. Maybe it was physical grandeur that I was missing! The anime could capture the epic sweep but some out-sized, flipped-art manga volume just didn’t do it for me. I did buy the Shojo editions when they came out, but I am pretty sure the art in those was still flipped.

Anyway, I am really looking forward to approaching X in this new format (and I believe with a new translation or at least new adaptation, as well). One day you and I will be caught up on it and can join the lamenting masses over its unfinished status.

MELINDA: The translation is credited to Lillian Olsen, who is also credited in both of the earlier editions, but I haven’t compared them to see what might be different now that Leyla Aker is editing. In any case, the new edition has a much grander impact!

So what else do you have to share with us this week?

MICHELLE: After a long wait, NETCOMICS has released the third and final volume of Small-Minded Schoolgirls by toma. Having loved the first two volumes, I had to check it out.

In this online exclusive, two career women in their early thirties must balance their professional and personal lives as they seek to find “the one.” Miru Na is a novelist, and as the third volume begins she has embarked upon a casual relationship with a hairstylist named Wontae. Meanwhile, it’s obvious that her brother’s friend, Jigwan, has serious feelings for her. The other protagonist, Somi Han, is working as an editor and dealing with her attraction to a coworker, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend (who has put their relationship on hold for a year to go to art school, where he has also found someone else who interests him).

If you’re thinking this all sounds pretty complicated, you’re right, and I haven’t even mentioned the part where Miru’s brother has relationship woes or Jigwan’s former girlfriend wants to make up and get married! As I read this volume, I kept thinking that this is prime material for a k-drama. I’m honestly surprised such an adaptation doesn’t exist yet!

So, on the one hand, this is a satisfying conclusion to the series. On the other, though, I found all the back and forth a little tiring. At one point Miru and Jigwan are discussing his ex, and she says, “At our age, when two people lose something special it’s hard to get it back.” That’s kind of how I feel about this series. I just couldn’t connect with it on the same level I did before. Part of the problem may be the translation/adaptation, which is sloppier than I remember it being in the first two volumes.

Ultimately, I am thrilled to have had the chance to read this series, which is the closest thing we have in English to Korean josei. And I’d still recommend it heartily, especially since reading all three volumes at once will probably yield better results than I have personally experienced.

MELINDA: I really enjoyed the first two volumes of this series as well, so I admit I’m disappointed to hear that the third may not live up to the their standard. I expect you may be right in assuming that reading all three together may be more satisfying, but it’s still a bit of a blow. There are a number of other grown-up ladies’ manhwa I enjoy at NETCOMICS, though, so I don’t feel entirely lost.

MICHELLE: I hope I didn’t give the impression that it’s bad, because it isn’t, it’s just hard to get back into after all this time. And speaking of other ladies’ manhwa, NETCOMICS is planning to resume online serialization of Please, Please Me this month after a hiatus of over a year. Looks like that’ll be the final volume, too. Then maybe they’ll resume The Adventures of Young Det!

MELINDA: Oh, good news indeed!

MICHELLE: Forsooth! I’m so happy to have NETCOMICS back in play!

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  1. I quite enjoyed Book of Human Insects myself. It was nowhere as depressing as Ayako, which was nice, it most reminded me of MW but with far more manipulation. I still need to get Princess Knight, but we all know that most of us around here will buy literally anything with Osamu Tezuka’s (and Fumi Yoshinaga’s) name on it. Still debating what to do about Adolf since I have 2-5 of Cadence and 1 in German but I just know I’ll want the shiny new Vertical versions because I know they’ll be of higher quality.

  2. Melinda, I’m so glad X is working better for you now. ^_^ I love it so much—second-favorite series!—and I hope the new edition catches people’s attention. I’ve had my copy of vol. 1 for…a while now…and I’m still delighted every time I see it on the shelf.

    Michelle, I really hope you enjoy the manga pulls you in this time around. Personally, I find it’s one of those series where the anime is enjoyable but ultimately missing a lot of the heart and detail of the source. I don’t mean that as a slam to the show, but as a hope that, since you liked the show, you’ll wind up doing well with the manga too. (On the shallowest note possible, the one thing I can never get over about the show is how no one ever has different clothes. Several of the clothing changes in the manga matter.)

    And yep, it is indeed a new script but not a new translation. ^^

    • Hmm, and apparently I can’t edit or delete the comment to fix a thoroughly broken sentence. I think I was trying to type two sentences at once. ^^;

    • Yay, I was thinking you’d said that about the script, so thanks for clarifying. :) And yes, I generally prefer the manga versions of things, so I am hopeful about revisiting the series. :)


  1. […] will be), I’m completely with her on X as this week’s must-buy manga. As I mentioned back in November, though Viz’s new-and-improved omnibus release hasn’t quite yet made me *love* X, […]

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