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Off the Shelf: Grown-up grumbling

MICHELLE: This being a grown-up thing is for the birds; I take it back.

MELINDA: I am so there with you. Revolt against adulthood! Irresponsibility now!

MICHELLE: Clean none of the things!

MELINDA: Hallelujah!

MICHELLE: Oh, but if we abjure all responsibility, Off the Shelf won’t get done.

MELINDA: Oh. Crap.

MICHELLE: Maybe we can clean *one* thing.

MELINDA: *sigh* I guess so.

MICHELLE: You go first. I’ll provide moral support.

MELINDA: Hmph. Fine. Well, I finally got a chance to read the latest from CLAMP, volume one of Gate 7, out recently from Dark Horse.

CLAMP is, perhaps, an acquired taste. Most people I talk with either love them dearly or roll their eyes heavily at the mention of their name. I’d classify myself in the “love them” category, though I certainly have preferences among their titles. I love Tokyo Babylon more than X. I love xxxHolic more than Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle. I love Legal Drug, but I’m lukewarm on Kobato. Most of the series I like best share quite a bit in common, and fortunately for me, Gate 7 falls very much in line with the titles I most enjoy.

Chikahito is a high school student with a keen interest in Japanese history and folklore. On a solo trip to Kyoto—something he’s dreamed of since he was a child—a chance encounter with three supernaturally-talented personages brings him in touch with an aspect of ancient history he definitely wasn’t looking for. There’s a lot of plot here that I won’t get into, but suffice it to say that it’s all very, very…CLAMP.

The Kyoto group features a number of CLAMP staples, including two beautiful young men with an ambiguous relationship and an adorable, androgynous youth who can’t get enough of Chikahito, whom (s)he manipulates into becoming part of their daily lives. Chikahito is eerily similar to xxxHolic‘s Watanuki, in both looks and personality, but with Watanuki’s spastic tendencies drastically dialed down. It’s as though CLAMP was simply not done with Watanuki, and found themselves embracing the opportunity to recreate him in a new and improved form. As always, there is a lot of ominous-sounding language and pretty, pretty artwork.

Frankly, this works really well for me. I’m not inclined to object to being given too much of a good thing, nor am I repelled by familiarity in such a cozy form as this. For me, Gate 7 is the sequential art equivalent of a grilled cheese sandwich with a bowl of tomato soup—unsurprising but deeply comforting and delicious.

There are definitely weaknesses in this series’ first volume. Like most of CLAMP’s supernaturally-enhanced universes, this one requires quite a lot of exposition, and the pace and plot suffer for it, especially early on. But after all this time, CLAMP’s style is undeniably solid, and it’s hard not to feel that the story is in good hands, even in its uneven first chapters. I know my kind of CLAMP when I see it, and Gate 7 is unquestionably my kind of CLAMP.

MICHELLE: I’m happy that you liked it so much! I haven’t closely read other reviews, since I still need to read it myself, but I had the distinct impression that folks were unenthused by it. It’s good to know that’s not a universal reaction.

I must ask… if there’s a Watanuki stand-in, is there someone else who functions as his Doumeki?

MELINDA: No, at least not yet. Interestingly, Hana (the character who clings to him from the start), latches on to him because of their similarities, not their differences. So he doesn’t yet have someone who serves as his complement in that way. I’ll be interested to see if that remains the case.

I realize I’m an easy target for a series like this, since it caters to some of my particular tastes in CLAMP, but I’m sure I’m not alone!

So what have you been reading?

MICHELLE: A couple of very different things!

First up is the debut volume of Shugo Chara Chan!, a four-koma series starring the guardian characters from Shugo Chara!. I misspoke on a recent Pick of the Week, in which I stated that this manga is by Peach-Pit, because it actually isn’t. It turns out that various other shoujo mangaka at Kodansha have contributed to it, including Ema Toyama, whose I Am Here! has been mentioned in this space before.

Like Shugo Chara! before it, Shugo Chara Chan! is rated teen (13+), which is even more inexplicable in its case because all of the material in would be fit for—and perhaps best enjoyed by—a seven-year-old. Sample plots include:

* Su discovers a secret box containing photos of Amu’s crush.
* Amu threatens to boil the guardian eggs for oversleeping.
* Ran eats all the bread at the picnic.
* Miki makes an ice statue of Amu for her birthday and then it melts in gross fashion.

Hilarious, no? Lest it seem as if I read all of this with a curmudgeonly grimace plastered on my face, there actually were a couple of things that made me smile, but they’re completely random and may appeal to only me, like, “The guardian characters meet a cute slug.” It’s certainly not brilliant fare, but it was kind of fun and I will probably keep reading it.

One thing I did want to point out is that while the main body of the volume is mostly immune from Kodansha’s questionable editing practices, the notes in the back of the book are oddly messed up. There are loads of missing letters, resulting in sentences like:

“The person in the last panel is AI O STA UST, also known simply as AI O. He is the vocalist for the rock band “B EAK .” Gee, how helpful!

MELINDA: My. Well. I admit I’ve been iffy on whether to spend my money on this series. I’m a huge fan of Shugo Chara! as you know, but I wasn’t sure that a 4-koma for little girls would resonate with me as well as a series for little girls apparently still does.

MICHELLE: Yeah, if you’ve got a choice between spending your money on this short little volume or, say, picking up the second volume of Princess Knight, I’d say the choice is clear.

What else have you been reading?

MELINDA: My second read this week was volume one of Rei Toma’s Dawn of the Arcana, the latest from Viz’s Shojo Beat imprint.

As the volume opens, red-headed Princess Nakaba is being introduced to the kingdom of her new husband, Prince Caesar, an arrogant, possessive ass, to whom she’s been married in order to maintain the tense peace between their societies. Always devalued, even amongst her own, for the color of her hair, Nakaba is pretty much resigned to an early death, finding comfort only in the company of her longtime servant, Loki, who was born to a race even more reviled than redheads. Is the devoted Loki her one true love, or can she find happiness with her hard-hearted prince?

Like Gate 7, much of this will sound familiar to even occasional fans of shoujo manga. The setup is so standard, in fact, that there is hardly any question at all that we’ll soon discover the soft side of Nakaba’s husband, who is almost undoubtedly her ultimately destined love interest. And did I mention that she’s got a secret, supernatural power? Seriously. On the surface, this thing reads like paint-by-numbers pseudo-romantic shoujo, along the lines of dubious current titles like Stepping on Roses. Fortunately, there’s some real freshness to the series that isn’t immediately apparent from a snarky plot summary.

Though the first volume’s focus on Nakaba’s “power” is not the author’s strongest choice, there are some nuances to the characterizations (particularly that of asshole prince Caesar) that keep things from sinking into pure cliché. Princess Nakaba is fearless and coldly stoic, without an ounce of typical shoujo optimism. And the political aspects of the story offer the potential for some heroine bad-assery and possibly civil war, which is always welcome in my book.

Despite its surface familiarity, there’s a real spark of life in Dawn of the Arcana. I’m looking forward to more!

MICHELLE: I always love political scheming in a fantasy series, so I look forward to seeing what Toma is able to make of it. Too, I especially look forward to a “coldly stoic” heroine. There aren’t enough of those!

MELINDA: Agreed! We see both spunky and ditzy in many variations, but “stoic” is rare indeed!

So what else have you got for us?

MICHELLE: An odd yet interesting one shot from One Peace Books! Breathe Deeply, by husband-and-wife manga team Yamaaki Doton, promises on its back cover to “force you to forget what you know about manga.” That’s not exactly true for the widely read manga fan, but the story does have a general-audience appeal and could help dispel the notion that manga is all big eyes and spiky hair.

Yuko Kazama is a very sick girl with two boys in love with her. To one, Sei, she has confided that, when her health fails, she doesn’t want a transplant (believing it would cause suffering to the donor) and would prefer to simply disappear. To the other, Oishi, she has revealed her desire to live and her fear that Sei will think poorly of her if she changes her mind. When Yuko passes away, Sei insures that her wishes are carried out, only to have Oishi blame him for her death.

Fast forward fifteen years, and now both men are scientists with different approaches to curing heart ailments. Sei has developed a synthetic gel that mimics heart functions while Oishi has made stem-cell discoveries. There is much talk about the validity of each approach (ethics versus progress), and quite a few shady hospital administrators who are depicted as fudging the line between “brain dead” and “could recover” in an effort to harvest organs for donation. In addition, both men have their moment as the genius in the spotlight, and we see how quickly such status can be lost due to personal conflicts.

Because of the pace of the story and the obsessive focus of the leads, it’s a bit difficult to get to know the characters and as a result the story is less emotionally affecting than it might otherwise be. Revelations that could be shocking are taken in stride, and readers never really feel the anguish in certain key moments. It’s like the story’s being told from a distance.

I do have to mention an irksome flaw in the script: it’s full of run-on sentences. When a speech bubble contains a complete thought, it’s not really noticeable that it’s lacking a period. But when two sentences collide without warning the results can be jarring. Here’s an example:

True success relies not only on intelligence, but on our humanity as well we can expect great things from you, Takano.

Ultimately, Breathe Deeply is likely to leave an impression, but not liable to leave you sniffling.

MELINDA: The run-on sentences sound truly irksome, but I admit the story sounds interesting. I enjoyed One Peace Books’ earlier release, Tenken, and it’s nice to see them putting out more manga, even if it’s not quite the game-changing release the back cover promises.

MICHELLE: I’d be curious to see what you’d think of it. I’m sure you could explain its appeal more eloquently than I can. :)

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  1. Typo nanny alert! “…a four-koma series starting the guardian characters…”

    As for the manga themselves … eh, while I don’t hate Clamp, I’m not a fan. I’m also not a fan of 4-koma. Breathe Deeply sounds like it has interesting, but it sounds like the execution would disappoint me, so I’m not inclined to try it. Dawn of Arcana sounds the most like something I would enjoy. I am very fond of shojo with lots of political intrigue, even if it is full of cliches, as long as it uses the right cliches ;)


  1. […] Melinda Beasi and Michelle Smith discuss a diverse quartet of recent manga in their latest Off the Shelf column at Manga Bookshelf. Connie looks at the Mitsukazu Mihara artbook Alice Addict at Slightly […]

  2. […] exactly this kind of CLAMP, and you probably recall that Gate 7‘s first volume lured me in pretty well, but by the end of the second volume, I was certainly feeling skeptical. I’ll probably give […]

  3. […] volume three of CLAMP’s Gate 7. While I joyfully declared volume one of this series to be “my kind of CLAMP”, its second volume’s onslaught of exposition and historical information left me a bit cold. […]

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