MELINDA: Welcome back to Off the Shelf! We’re doing something a bit different with the column this week. Usually, somewhere around this time, we’d be preparing our monthly BL Bookrack column, featuring reviews of a handful of new BL titles. This month, we decide to switch things up a bit, and take on a few Yuri titles—sort of a “GL Bookrack” if you will—inspired by the growing number of Yuri titles becoming available digitally from JManga. But as we talked more about it, we realized we both wanted to read all three of the titles currently available.
So, in the end, we bring you
BL GL Bookrack, Off the Shelf style!
Michelle, would you like to introduce our first title?
MICHELLE: Hmm… where to start? I suppose the simplest title can go first, and that would have to be Hayako Goto’s Poor Poor Lips.
Told in a four-panel format, Poor Poor Lips is a comedy about Okashi Nako (whose name is a pun meaning “strange girl”), a deeply impoverished 21-year-old who answers an advertisement for a sales job at a store selling power stones. The manager, Otsuka Ren, is the daughter of a rich family who promptly tells all the applicants that she is a lesbian. When most of them flee, Nako is hired on the spot with the reassurance, “You’re DEFINITELY not my type, so don’t worry.”
Most of the manga involves gags about Nako’s extreme poverty—she eats a lot of bread crusts—and Ren’s growing fondness for her, coupled with her impulse to give Nako everything she lacks, which she is trying not to do because previous relationships have been spoiled by excess generosity. Ren also gets really jealous of Nako’s old classmate, pastry chef Furui, and does various silly things to get him to go away/keep tabs on him, including placing spy cameras in his shop.
All in all, I have to say that I didn’t find this funny at all. That’s not to say that it isn’t pleasant, but none of the gags struck me as funny. I kept thinking, “I wonder what this would be like if Nako was actually depicted as a scruffy young woman instead of looking like an eight-year-old.” I bet I would’ve liked it more then. Ultimately, I didn’t really feel much inclined to read the other two volumes available on JManga, figuring they’d simply be more of the same.
How about you?
MELINDA: I’d say my reaction was significantly different, at least once I’d gotten a ways into the story. What you describe is pretty much how I felt over the course of the first few chapters, but as the volume continued, I have to say it really grew on me. I began to like both of the main characters quite a bit, and I did actually find a lot of it to be quite funny, particularly the running (false) rivalry between Ren and Furui (whose family’s bakery “Furui Cake” could also be read as “old cake”).
Things like the over-the-top spying and even Nako’s young/cute appearance read as humorous to me, which I largely chalk up to its being a 4-koma. I think I would have found most of it unappealing as a regular story manga, but in comic strip format, it really worked for me.
MICHELLE: I was still envisioning it as 4-koma, but with an older-looking Nako. But, yeah, maybe a lot of over-the-top silliness wouldn’t be possible if she looked too realistic.
I will say that I think the story has surprising depth in terms of Ren’s conflicting impulses. She honestly doesn’t know how to make someone happy other than by bestowing money and gifts upon them, and it’s hard for her not to coddle someone or something she likes. Goto exemplifies this rather neatly in a few panels about a stray kitten Nako takes in, and Ren’s sad past with an overfed baby bird.
I guess I should clarify that me not finding something funny doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s worthwhile or, as I called it, “pleasant.” It is at least not outright unfunny.
MELINDA: I’ll point out, too, that this is one of the better localization efforts I’ve seen from JManga. It read really smoothly, the translation notes were genuinely helpful, and the fact that I found it funny at all says a lot. I think 4-koma is very difficult to bring across effectively in English.
MICHELLE: Definitely. I think I saw all of one typo. There are a few print publishers who wish they could make that claim!
So, how about you introduce the second title?
MELINDA: Sure! Let’s take a fairly drastic turn and look at the other single volume we each read, Ebine Yamaji’s Love My Life, originally serialized in josei magazine Feel Young, home of familiar titles like Bunny Drop (Yen Press), Happy Mania (Tokyopop), and Blue (Fanfare/Ponent Mon).
Love My Life tells the story of a young woman named Ichiko who, upon coming out to her father, discovers that he also is gay, as was her mother (who died when Ichiko was quite young). What’s especially interesting about this, is that though the story certainly centers around the relationship between Ichiko and her girlfriend, Ellie, that’s not the only thing Ichiko is dealing with by far. She’s also having to come to terms with the fact that her parents’ relationship wasn’t what she thought, and that even now, her father has been living a life completely separate from the one he has with her. And since we meet Ichiko after her relationship with Ellie has already been going on for some time, it’s neither a coming-out story nor a typical romance.
Ichiko meets her father’s boyfriend (who wants very little to do with her), helps Ellie survive her strained relationship with her own father, struggles with feelings of loneliness while Ellie studies for the bar exam, and poses as her gay (male) best friend’s girlfriend to help shield him from having to deal with his sexuality at school. It’s more of a slice-of-life manga than anything else, but emotionally resonant in a way I tend to expect from serious drama or well-written romance.
I have to say that this was probably my favorite of all the Yuri we read this week, mainly because it was by far the most relatable and true-to-life. I like genre romance a lot, but this contained some of the best aspects of romance manga (including a good amount of sexual content) without having to rely on fantasy at all, which I’ll admit is pretty refreshing. It’s also added to my yearning to see more josei in English, Yuri or otherwise.
MICHELLE: Yes, this was my favorite, as well. As you say, it’s neither a coming-out story nor a typical romance. To me, it reads simply as a growing-up story with a focus on being true to yourself. Ichiko comes out to her father, but learns a truth in return that flips her world on end. It’s a hard thing to learn that something you’d believed in was never real, and that your parents are individuals with thoughts, desires, and lives that may have nothing to do with you. As hard as that is to process, though, she achieves a better understanding of her father as a result, including the realization of how understanding he is.
And then there’s Ellie, who has been fueled by the desire to compete with her father and brother. It’s not that she particularly wants to be a lawyer, but wants to prove, “I can catch up to you. And be on equal footing with you.” Ichiko instinctively feels that this is wrong, but must learn not to meddle and let Ellie have her own journey, come to her own realizations.
I liked that there’s not a certain “happy ever after” feeling to Love My Life. Ichiko and Ellie may not last as a couple. But one definitely gets the sense that, even if that were to happen, they would still be okay.
MELINDA: That was all so eloquently put, Michelle! I’m not sure I could add anything of substance to what you just said. Yes. Exactly. You’re so right-on.
As I attempt to muster some kind of intelligence again, do you want to talk about our third selection?
MICHELLE: Thank you! And sure!
Our last title is Milk Morinaga’s Girl Friends, which is available on JManga in its five-volume entirety (and which will be coming to print courtesy of Seven Seas later this year). This seinen series was serialized in Futabasha’s Comic High! and takes place at an all-girls high school.
Mariko (Mari) Kumakura is somewhat shy and reserved, but accepts an invitation from a more outgoing classmate, Akiko (Akko) Oohashi, to take the train home together. This leads to Akko encouraging Mari to get a haircut, educating her about fashion, and introducing her to some friends, including glamorous Sugi and cosplay addict Tamamin. All of this helps Mari gain confidence and some independence, and as she and Akko get closer, she starts to realize that she not only doesn’t want their friendship to fade, but wants to be more than friends.
Various misunderstandings ensue. Mari despairs that hers is “a love that can never come true,” and decides to date a former classmate in an attempt to move on and be happy that she gets to be Akko’s friend. At one point she kisses Akko, but is later evasive and embarrassed and eventually plays it off as a joke. But soon, Akko is feeling jealous of the time that Mari spends with her boyfriend, and realizes that she too wants to be more than friends. Now if only she can convince Mari that she really means it, or has that ship already sailed?
Sorry, lapsed into a bit of “back cover blurb” style, there!
MELINDA: Well done! In some ways, the “back cover blurb” summary is very much the point. Girlfriends falls into what Erica Friedman refers to as “Story A” for the genre, which isn’t an inherently negative description, by any means, but it is an indication that this is going to be a formula romance on a basic level. It’s a very enjoyable formula romance, in my opinion, but it’s unquestionably romantic fantasy. I’d even say it’s unquestionably romantic fantasy for men, given the particular types of fanservice we see throughout, but even that isn’t really a negative. It’s just a point of fact.
As I’ve said, I absolutely enjoy genre romance, and that’s what Girlfriends is. It’s got all the sweetness and anticipation of most any high school romance you’d find in a typical shoujo magazine, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s adorable. And if the way things work out so neatly and sweetly (after getting through a few typical hurdles) feels unbelievable, that’s part of what makes it fantasy.
MICHELLE: I concur. Reading it, though, I was struck by how little yuri I have really actually read. While I knew it was all going according to formula, reading about a burgeoning relationship between two girls still felt pretty new to me.
I’m glad you brought up the fanservice, because I definitely wanted to talk about that. First off, I should mention that it’s much less than I had anticipated, knowing that this series ran in a seinen magazine. There are a few superfluous bikinis, a few crotch shots, some boobies… but that’s about the extent of it. In contrast, Love My Life has much more sexual content, but because it feels more natural to the story (with no zooming in to specific body parts) it doesn’t come off as fanservice at all.
MELINDA: Yeah, I would never describe the sexual content in Love My Life as “fanservice” and looking at these two titles together really highlights the difference there. But as you say, the service in Girlfriends is definitely restrained. It almost feels like little more than a shift in perspective from shoujo romance, in which the girls are usually drawn just as prettily, short skirts and all, just not by way of the male gaze.
I, too, have read relatively little yuri, but I’m very glad to see more of it becoming available in English, including romantic fantasies like Girlfriends. I’m a big fan of romance, and I’ve pretty much discovered over the years that my tastes in that genre depend very little on the genders of the characters, outside of the fact that it offers more variety in the genre, and variety is always a good thing. Possibly that makes me pretty shallow, but really, I just like a good romance.
MICHELLE: Same here! So thanks, JManga, and more of the same, please!