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Going Digital: April 2012

Welcome to the latest Going Digital, Manga Bookshelf’s monthly feature focusing on manga available for digital viewing or download. Each month, the Manga Bookshelf bloggers review a selection of comics we’ve read on our computers, phones, or tablet devices, to give readers a taste of what’s out there, old and new, and how well it works in digital form.

This month, Melinda, Sean, and Michelle take a look at several recent JManga releases available to read in your web browser. OS and browser information is included with each review, to let you know exactly how we accessed what we read.

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Apartments of Calle Feliz | By est em | Libre Publishing Co., Ltd., Citron | | Mac OS 10.7.3, Safari 5.1.5
“No one wants to read your sad story during a recession. You need to finish this with a happy ending.”

Still reeling from his latest breakup, these words from his editor are the last thing Luca wants to hear. “… happy ending? I’ve never experienced anything like it,” he thinks, as he lugs his scant possessions down to an apartment building at the end of the ironically-named “Calle Feliz” (“Happy Street”), where he hopes to find a vacant room. Unfortunately, the vacancy is non-existant, but the building’s landlord—a late-night DJ named Javi—offers him a couch, wi-fi, and a home-cooked meal, delivered with a pair of mournful eyes that Luca can’t bring himself to refuse. In addition, Javi offers him a solution to his creative difficulties, by suggesting that Luca write about the building’s tenants, most of whom could use some kind of happy ending.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with short stories, especially when they’re told through sequential art. That is to say, most of the time I hate them, except when I really, really love them. Est em’s work has generally fallen into the latter category, particularly her collection Age Called Blue, which I once referred to as “most overtly romantic” book in est em’s English-translated catalogue. Though Age Called Blue still stands as my favorite of her work so far, The Apartments of Calle Feliz gives it a run for its money in the romance department, if not in the most satisfying way.

Though the bulk of the volume consists of Luca’s observations on the building’s tenants—a man whose fear of losing his partner has (oddly) driven him to nudism, a pair of twins involved with the same man, a rather creepy puppet maker who can’t let go of his long-lost relationship with an underage lover, and (my favorite of the bunch) a transgender circus performer who finds love with the man upstairs—the book’s real love story belongs to Luca and Javi, who I wish had a lot more screen time. Don’t get me wrong. The book’s series of apartment vignettes are exactly as nuanced and intriguing as all of est em’s work. It’s just that there’s so much to explore in Luca and Javi, and though est em makes the most of the pages she gives them, it still feels as though she hasn’t done them justice. As a result, both their individual stories and their slow-building romance read as genuinely unfinished rather than typically sparse.

That said, there’s no excuse for missing out on even a single page of est em’s delicately-crafted storytelling, even as it leaves us wanting more. Recommended. – Melinda Beasi

Non-chan no Tenohira, Vol. 1 | By Setsuko Kaneko | Futabasha, Jour Suteki no Shifutachi | | Windows XP, Firefox 11.0
It is sometimes hard to read this title without thinking of With The Light, the josei manga about raising an autistic child that Yen Press put out. Both ran in magazines for housewives (Akita Shoten’s For Mrs. and Futabasha’s, which I think translates as “Jour for Beautiful Housewives’); both are clearly written from the perspective of the mother; and both deal with the difficulty that communities and family, especially in Japan, have in dealing with children with disabilities. That said, autism and Down’s Syndrome are not the same, and while With The Light had the drama starting after the child had already been born, Non-chan begins much earlier than that.

Our young couple, Kazuya and Yuki, have been married for years but still have been unable to conceive. Kazuya’s family is very much looking for a child, and the pressure is seemingly entirely on Yuki. It’s made fairly clear that her husband’ family don’t think much of her, and are blaming her for this regardless of what is being said. The joy that the couple have when Yuki finally conceives is wonderful… then a blood test comes back saying there’s a high probability the baby will have Down’s. This manga does not pull any punches, as the hospital tells Yuki this, then says “If you’re going to have an abortion, do it quickly.” As the volume goes on, we struggle with Yuki and Kazuya, as they try to decide whether to have the baby, whether to have amniocentesis that will tell them if that’s the case, and then when they finally have the child, dealing with both Down’s Syndrome as well as the continuing issues with Kazuya’s family.

I’ll be honest – this is a heavy, heavy manga. There are moments of joy and love in here, and they’re wonderful, but they’re all the more poignant because they’re surrounded by the reality of what raising this child means. There’s a lot of classism here, as Kazuya’s family is rich, while Yuki’s family was not – she’s always had to struggle for acceptance, and the birth of Noriko (Non-chan) is like a nail in the coffin. Nor is it limited to Kazuya’s family – when the baby is born, the doctor and nurses are silent,. not offering congratulations. Over and over again, the narrative fights with itself – “Your child is wrong and you are horrible” versus “Your child wanted to be born and is your child, screw those other people”. Finding the balance between the two is what makes the manga so riveting. It does, at least, lighten up towards the end of the first volume. Still – oof. JManga’s translation is overly formal and stilted at times (like many of their first Futabasha volumes), but this is still worth a read if you don’t mind the tone.-Sean Gaffney

PoyoPoyo’s Observation Diary, Vol. 1 | By Ru Tatsuki | Takeshobo, Manga Life | | Windows 7, SeaMonkey 2.8
When a drunken young woman named Moe Sato spots a perfectly round kitty in an alley one night, she mistakes him for a pillow. Upon sobering up and realizing his felinity, she takes him home and he becomes the family pet, Poyo. PoyoPoyo’s Observation Diary is a 4-koma manga about Poyo’s life with the Sato family, which consists of his doting owner, Moe; her equally doting but incredibly strong father; and her rather unenthused younger brother, Hide.

I wanted to like this manga and, in truth, I honestly don’t dislike it. It’s just that I seldom find 4-koma manga funny, and this is no exception. Most of the humor involves Poyo (who really is genuinely cute) getting mistaken for other things, like a pumpkin or a loaf of bread, and it gets old after a while. It doesn’t help that every few pages, the concept is reiterated, and the cast reintroduced. There’s also a recurring gag about a neighbor cat who likes to mount Poyo, which is pretty bizarre, as well as a few strips that I just didn’t get at all.

The parts of the manga that I liked best were the parts that weren’t intended to be funny. I liked it when Poyo got revenge on the cat who beat up his overly affectionate friend, for example, and really adored anything about how tough and manly Papa Sato is a pushover where kitties are concerned. That’s enough to convince me to give the second volume a try whenever it materializes. – Michelle Smith

Working Kentauros | By est em | Libra Publishing, Zero Comics | | Windows 7, SeaMonkey 2.8
I first learned about Hatarake, Kentauros! from the blog Brain Vs. Book. It sounded wonderful, but I wasn’t too optimistic about getting to read it in English. So, imagine my exuberance a couple of weeks ago when the title appeared in the “coming soon” section of JManga’s newsletter! And now that I’ve read it, I can attest that it’s every bit as wonderful as I had hoped.

Beginning from the premise that centaurs exist and that recently revised employment laws allow them to work alongside humans, est em depicts five different centaurs in their chosen careers. We begin with Kentaro, who has moved from Hokkaido to Tokyo to become a salaryman. Guided by his sempai, he meets with clients and arranges contracts whilst dealing with challenges like crowded trains and getting groped in the elevator. Next is the story of Shunta, who wants to make people happy with his soba, but is unable to fit in the kitchen at the shop where he is an apprentice. Subsequent chapters feature a centaur who wants to make shoes (despite his inability to wear them), a centaur model who is tired of the Photoshop tricks that make him appear human, and an aspiring NEET who only wants to run and be carefree.

For the most part, the stories are lighthearted and have positive outcomes. Shunta meets a human with similar goals, and they run a ramen cart together. The shoemaker’s wares are highly praised. The model comes out of the closet with the encouragement of a designer. The slacker is gently encouraged by another centaur and comes to appreciate the value of good work. But there’s a certain degree of poignancy as well, since the centaurs’ lifespan greatly exceeds that of humans. The most striking depiction of this truth can be found in the shoemaker chapter, as est em encapsulates a decades-long working relationship in a series of near-identical panels in which the human partner ages while the centaur remains unchanged. It made me sniffly, and really brought home the point that, though this may not be overt BL, the male-male relationships are deeply meaningful all the same.

Like the best speculative fiction, est em uses her offbeat “centaurs in the workplace” concept to communicate universal truths. Everyone wants to be free to be themselves, and no one wants to watch someone they love get sick and pass away. Even if they happen to be a centaur. Highly, highly recommended. – Michelle Smith

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  1. […] recent BL reviews at Manga Bookshelf: Apartments of Calle Feliz (JManga), Working Kentauros (JManga), Devil’s Honey (Sublime), The Boyfriend Next Door […]

  2. […] the chance, it would be est em’s Working Kentauros. Here’s what I said about it in a Going Digital column from last year: “Like the best speculative fiction, est em uses her offbeat “centaurs in […]

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