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Off the Shelf: Beer, cheese, & a bit of fluff

MELINDA: Hi! Hi. Um… hi. I had a beer.

MICHELLE: I had string cheese!

MELINDA: Have you had manga?

MICHELLE: I have had! Relatively “fluffy” manga, comparatively, but manga all the same!

MELINDA: Tell me more!

MICHELLE: Well, one thing I read was the fourth volume of Kakifly’s moe comedy, K-ON!, which is about as fluffy as it gets.

I’m not sure how it happened, but K-ON! has gradually won me over. When I read the first volume of this four-koma series about a group of girls who form a pop music club at their high school, I was not impressed, finding the fanservice awkward and some of the characters gratingly stupid. Now, true, some of the characters are still gratingly stupid, but I seem to have become more accepting of the less-than-perfect aspects of this manga. Or perhaps I’ve simply lowered my expectations. In any case, I have finally come around.

This volume finds the four original band members studying for college entrance exams in an effort to attend the same school. For two of the girls, this isn’t a challenge—in fact, the wealthy girl is never actually seen studying and there’s a subtle implication that she might have a secret “in” on account of her status—but the other two are not very good students, so there is a lot of focus on their comical failures. Meanwhile, the youngest member of the group, Azusa, drops her stoic demeanor and gets weepy at the thought of being alone but is joined by a couple of new bandmates right at the end of the volume.

Okay, you know what? This isn’t the most original stuff out there. There’s also a high school festival involving a performance of Romeo and Juliet, and another instance of the girls giving a concert that happens entirely off-panel. But I kind of don’t care anymore. I like Azusa and I like “seemingly cool yet easily flustered” Mio and, Heaven help me, I even like the slashy potential in this series. (There must be mad troves of K-ON! fanfic!) Reading it cheered me up, and that’s what a comedy is supposed to do.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve done a 180º on this series.

MELINDA: I’m actually pretty glad to hear you say that! I’ll admit that I haven’t yet gotten into the manga (I missed the first volume, and never caught up after that), but I was pretty well enamored with the anime series, so I come to it all with a pro-K-ON! bias. I’m probably still more in touch with my young teenaged self than a lot of women my age (this is likely not a good thing), so I can still relate to these girls, and I suspect I wasn’t much less stupid, even if I was more school-smart than most of them. In any case, I’m happy this has turned into something enjoyable for you!

MICHELLE: Me, too. I’m still sad that we never actually see them playing anything, but a segment in which various members try their hand at writing song lyrics was pretty amusing. I’m not sure whether there’s more of the series or not—I’d originally thought it was complete in four volumes, but it doesn’t seem like it from how this volume ends.

Anyhoo, what’ve you been reading?

MELINDA: Well, I suppose you could classify my first read as “fluff” as well, but it’s classic fluff, so it has a very different feel. I’m talking about volume one of Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight, finally released in this country by Vertical, much to the delight of us here at Manga Bookshelf. I had a good idea of what to expect from this series, especially after Kate’s Manga Artifacts tribute last year, but my own reaction to it was still a bit of a surprise.

As Kate’s article makes clear, this is a lively, swashbuckling fantasy, and it’s very enjoyable as such. She covered the premise too, in which Princess Sapphire is born as a girl being raised as a boy, thanks to a pre-birth snafu that gave her both a girl’s and boy’s heart. I’ll admit, I wasn’t quite prepared for my own reaction to this.

I’m perfectly capable of viewing this manga in the context of its time, yet I’m still jarred by the notion that Sapphire’s strength and bravery are due only to her accidental ownership of a boy’s heart. I get that this may have been the only way Tezuka (or his readers) could deal with the idea of a swashbuckling heroine, but I wish he didn’t feel the need to keep bringing it up. There’s even a fight scene in this volume where Sapphire’s boy’s heart is momentarily removed, rendering her suddenly weak and afraid. Then her bravery and skill returns as soon as she gets the heart back again. That really bothered me, I have to admit.

Fortunately, the issues I’m having with the manga’s discussion of gender roles are largely overshadowed by the likeableness of its lead character. I really like Sapphire, and though she dislikes having to live as boy while her girl’s heart longs for everything she’s not allowed to have, she doesn’t reject the qualities that make her able to pass as male. She wants to wear dresses and she wishes she could crush on the neighboring prince a little more openly, but it’s hard to imagine her enjoying a life without the adventure her “male” role offers her.

Things take an interesting turn in the last few chapters of this volume, and I expect I might enjoy the second volume more than the first, if those chapters are any indication. But even if the premise continues to bother me, I suspect I’ll continue to enjoy this series. Sapphire is just too much fun to let go of.

MICHELLE: Oh man, that fight scene you speak of seems guaranteed to make steam come out of my ears. But still, this is a title I long wished for, despite not knowing very much about it aside from its premise. (I’ve been waiting for the release of volume two so I could read the whole series at once.) I suppose I will try to overlook this aspect, or at least consider it a sign of the times.

MELINDA: It really is worth making the attempt, and honestly I’m looking forward to volume two. I hope your experience is the same!

So what else have you been reading this week?

MICHELLE: Well…. it’s something I have to be in the mood for, but when I am, it can really hit the spot!

I am talking about Gosho Aoyama’s long-running shounen mystery, Case Closed. This series is pretty unique because its Shonen Sunday stylings—by which I mean largely episodic but with a story-spanning arc that will only really be resolved at the conclusion of the series—make it an ideal candidate for “popping in to see what’s going on.” The first volume I ever read of Case Closed was volume 25, then I went back and read some of the beginning, and then this week was inspired to check out the current happenings in volume 41.

Immediately, one can drop right in and figure out what’s going on. The basic premise of the series is that hotshot teen detective Jimmy Kudo had a run-in with some mysterious “men in black” and is now trapped in the body of a first grader who goes by the name Conan Edogawa. He’s not as able to help the bumbling local police force in this form, but with the help of some handy gadgets, he makes do.

As the volume begins, Conan’s mom (a famous actress) has been sent by her husband to help solve the case of a wealthy widower who’s been receiving threatening letters under his pillow. The culprit is revealed within a few chapters and, as is usual for Case Closed, used an incredibly elaborate murder method. Next, some dude is stabbed. After that, some dude is garroted in a Porsche. Conan always happens to be nearby and always manages to use an adult as mouthpiece for the solution he devised.

If you’re looking for a gritty, compelling murder mystery, you’re not going to find it here. Go read some Elizabeth George or something. Case Closed consistently treats death like a puzzle, and no one is ever too distraught about what has befallen their loved ones. It’s a game, and usually not one that the reader has any chance of figuring out on their own. But man, I really had fun with this volume! I liked that the cases were short and that the volume was nicely seasoned with some stalking courtesy of the “men in black.” Because the series is up to volume 73 in Japan and still ongoing, I don’t really believe anything big will happen with them soon, but that doesn’t prevent me from being really keen to read volume 42!

MELINDA: I’m not often a huge fan of truly episodic storytelling, but I admit this does sound kind of fun!

MICHELLE: Like I said, it’s all about being in the right mood for it. Really, it’s another manifestation of the “everything is simple” brain-balm effect that I enjoy from some shounen manga.

Anyhoo! Thus concludes my fluff. What else have you got?

MELINDA: My second selection can’t rightly be called “fluff,” though it does have a slow, gentle quality to it that is perhaps a completely different kind of brain balm. This week, I read the second volume of Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story, beautifully produced and packaged in hardcover by Yen Press. I know I brought up Yen’s production values when I discussed the series’ first volume, but it just has to be mentioned again. This is a gorgeous book, and that alone gives it an air of gravity. Still, there is a lightheartedness here that makes this a really smooth read.

Things take a dramatic turn in this volume, when Amir’s clan returns again to take her back with them in order to remarry her into another tribe. It’s an ugly scene, and not lacking tragedy, but the real outcome of all of it is that Amir begins to view her very young husband as a man, which, interestingly, is more uncomfortable for her than it is for the reader.

Despite the characters’ jarring age difference, the author is clearly allowing them a romance, and is executing it so deftly, it actually doesn’t feel jarring at all. Amir’s new feelings for her husband are really… sweet. It’s quite lovely to watch their relationship grow, and I found that surprising.

The author also has a real gift for teaching us about the story’s setting without becoming didactic or distracting from the story in any way. There is a lovely section in this volume that is entirely about the importance of cloth and embroidery in the lives of the tribe’s women, and it may even be my favorite part of series so far.

Though we’re not allowed into the mind of any one character, there’s an intimacy with the tribe as a whole that reveals the author’s affection for them and helps to draw us in to their lives. Despite the distance in our POV, this is probably one of the warmest comics I’ve read, and more compelling in its quietness than I would ever expect.

Really, I love this series.

MICHELLE: That sounds so lovely. Maybe over Christmas break I’ll actually have the opportunity to read these two volumes, which have been sitting here beside me for ages now. And I definitely think it’s worth mentioning when a publisher has excellent production values; they should be praised for doing something well that other entities (*cough*Kodansha*cough*) can’t seem to manage.

MELINDA: It’s nice when a beautiful package like this is just as beautiful inside as well. A Bride’s Story was the perfect choice for this kind of treatment.

MICHELLE: Indeed!

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Comments

  1. While I can understand trying to see the boy’s heart business as a mark of its time …

    I’m now reading a novel that was published in Hong Kong around the same time as Princess Knight. There several female characters who are at least part-time swashbucklers. One of them is sometimes called one of the ‘brothers’, but when referred to individually, she’s always called a ‘sister’, so being a swashbuckler and female are clearly considered compatible. And she kicks as much butt as her ‘brothers’. And there is another female character who 1) is really good at beating people up with bat 2) is one of the most dangerous people in the story (if she can’t overpower you physically – and there are a lot of people she can overpower just using physical combat – she will use her wits to beat you), and 3) she loves playing with dolls the same way many 7-year old girls love playing with dolls, even though she is actually 15 years old. Even when she tries to pass as a boy, she comes across as really girly. But she’s a girl who gets a *lot* of adventure, and is not keen on being ‘protected’ unless the protection is mutual (there is one scene where, when her lover says something like ‘I’ll save you’ she replies by saying something like ‘okay, if you save me, I’ll save you, and then we’ll both be saved’).

    So, it’s possible that 1950s Hong Kong was simply a more enlightened society than 1950s Japan when it came to gender … but as I am currently experiencing one product of 1950s East Asian culture which manages to make characters swashbuckling and very feminine at the same time, it is making me particularly unwilling to excuse Princess Knight just because it’s from the 1950s.

    • Hamster428 says:

      Hey which novel were you reading? Does it happen to be a wuxia? I too had a problem in general with PK’s portrayal of Sapphire’s genders. But someone has said it was more the way she perceives herself according to expectations than the hearts themselves. I don’t know. I keep drifting in and out of reading so I can’t say for sure that’s the case at the end of the books. But considering these are written for very young girls though, I suppose the idea of the hearts dictating who Sapphire becomes would make things easier to understand.

      • Yes, it’s a wuxia. It’s Legend of the Condor Heroes.

        (note for people who are not familiar with wuxia – this exchange is the equivalent of “hey, which novel were you reading? Does it happen to be British fantasy? / Yes, it’s British fantasy. It’s the Fellowship of the Ring).

        I actually have not read Princess Knight, so like Michelle, I cannot be sure how I would react. Obviously, if in the end it turns out that she doesn’t need the boy’s heart to be a swashbuckling princess, I would feel very differently about it. But while the hearts issue can certainly help explain the idea to young children, was it necessary make it a boy’s heart and a girl’s heart – why not, say, the heart of a lion and the heart of a dove, or a heart of bravery and a heart of love? I can’t answer that question because I haven’t read Princess Knight, so maybe there is a reason why it is essential that the heart was based on gender.

        Come to think of it, Basara does something a little similar with Sarasa/Tatara – but at least in Basara it is pretty clear that it is based on Sarasa’s self-perception, and not something fundamental about gender.

        • I love LoCH! It was my first JY novel. But who said that line? Was it Rong Er to Guo Jing? It’s been too long.
          As for PK, I need to properly read it again but now that you mention Basara, there may have been a sense of duty attached to being the prince hence Sapphire’s insistence on being brave when she’s in that identity and not when she’s back to just a girl. Unlike Basara though, I feel like you have to dig deep to draw these conclusions in PK

          • This discussion is making me more interested in reading Princess Knight, so that I can find out what I would make of all of this. Alas, that is probably going to have to wait, because I read Chinese slowly, and I already bought RofCH and HSaDS.

            LoCH is my first JY novel too. And yes, Huang Rong says that to Guo Jing, though it turns out that I misremembered the line a little – she actually says 你救過我,今日我也救你一次,正好扯直,以後咱們誰也不欠誰的情 (you saved me, today I also saved you, which makes us even, and we don’t owe each other anything).

            (Spoilers for LoCH follows)

            I am currently at the section where Guo Jing and Ke Zhen’e are claiming that Huang Yaoshi killed the 5 other Jiangnan Weirdos, Huang Yaoshi says that he did it because he’s evil, Huang Rong says that her father is innocent, Hong Qigong is trying to keep the peace, and Ouyang Feng thinks this is … amusing (probably because he’s the real culprit).

            • We’re so going OT here… but I can’t help it whenever the Condor Trilogy is mentioned >_< I'm not a fan of RoCH myself but I love love love HSDS, The hero is like a mesh of both Guo Jing and Yang Guo, with all the traits I like about them and none of the traits I dislike about them. Tell me what you think when you get there.

  2. I just can’t get in to Bride’s Story I just found it crushinglly dull pretty art can’t hide an insiped storyline no matter how well researched.
    or well drawn for me,

    As far as the slash aspects considering the mountain of Dojinshi in Japan (all though most of it will make you want to claw you’re eyes out)
    It does exist although I think doing so is a betrayal of the
    characters much like some of the Pretty Cure and Lyrical Nanoha stuff I’ve
    found (seriously don’t ask) it just boggles the mind what some people come up with.

  3. I’m a bit on the fence with Princess Knight with the boy/girl hearts thing, though it’s a relief to know that the heroine is highly likeable. I might just have to check it out after all. I wonder if the updated version by Pink Hanamori fares better or worse…

    In regards to gender portrayals of 1950’s Hong Kong vs. 1950’s Japan, wouldn’t Liang Yusheng be the icing on the cake with his strong and powerful females such as Baifa Monu (aka Bride with White Hair/Legend of the White Haired Maiden)? Here’s a female protagonist who is strong, noble, doesn’t need protection from anybody and enjoys wearing dresses. Wow.

  4. I was a little unhappy with that fight scene in the first volume of Princess Knight, too. But I just finished reading the second volume, and the idea that she can only be a swashbuckling knight when her boy heart is in charge is pretty quickly overridden.

  5. Oh, Bride’s Story . . . (I read it and Princess Knight the same week.) Anyway, I like the word “warm” used to describe it. “Gentle” wasn’t quite right in my mind, but I think warm conveys it. I can understand why it’s not for everyone, since not everyone can enjoy slow and deliberate sociology/nonfiction, but I adore it and can’t wait to see where the story veers in volume 3. : )

    Also, Case Closed! Yay!



Trackbacks

  1. [...] and Michelle Smith discuss a handful of recent releases, mostly of the fluffy kind, in their latest Off the Shelf column at Manga Bookshelf. Three Steps Over Japan posts a few short reviews of miscellaneous [...]

  2. [...] already, I’ll focus instead on volume 41 of Case Closed, which I talked about in a recent Off the Shelf column. I realize it’s unlikely that anyone new to a series would decide to start with volume 41, [...]



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