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Off the Shelf: Damnably Dubious

Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with Melinda & Michelle! I’m joined, as always, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.

This week’s installment includes titles from Yen Press, Viz Media, Tokyopop, Del Rey Manga, and Digital Manga Publishing.

MELINDA: The air is like soup here in western Massachusetts this week, which means there’s been nothing for me to do but huddle against the air conditioner with a volume of manga. What about you?

MICHELLE: I’ve certainly been staying inside as much as possible, though in the South central air conditioning is a must so there’s no actual huddling required. :)

This weekend, for example, I passed a lovely afternoon binging on Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning, the first of the series I sampled in our Shounen Sundays experiment that I have managed to continue (though I promise not to abandon the rest!).

MELINDA: Oh, really? Has your opinion of the series changed after a bit of total immersion?

MICHELLE: Mm, a bit, though I liked it to begin with. It began as a mystery series in which high schooler Ayumu Narumi gets involved in investigating the Blade Children, the same topic that his genius detective brother was looking into before his disappearance. Then it morphed into what the author called a “showdown manga,” in which various members of the Blade Children issue challenges (at his brother’s orders) designed to awaken Ayumu’s potential.

This weekend I read volumes four through six. As volume four begins, Ayumu has just been duped by one of the Blade Children and is feeling pretty crappy about it, but his clever and useful sidekick, Hiyono, arranges to get herself taken hostage, knowing that when someone *else* is on the line, Ayumu will forget his worries and do his best to save her. What follows is a really awesome challenge in which Ayumu and the Blade Children engage in a game to see who can secure both Hiyono *and* a tape containing evidence of crimes committed by the Blade Children. There are a lot of clever twists and it’s a lot of fun to read; even the character who in earlier volumes screamed moe to me is revealed to be a lot smarter and stronger than previously suspected.

Ayumu can’t sustain this level of confidence after Hiyono is back, but he doesn’t really have to contend with further challenges after that, because there’s suddenly a new Blade Child in town, one who has taken up the task of killing all the rest. Somehow, Ayumu and Hiyono find themselves allied with their former enemies against this new threat, and it manages to feel like a pretty organic evolution. A new, sporty female character is added to the mix, too, so it feels like the story is about to go in an interesting new direction.

MELINDA: I’m actually really glad to hear that about the supposed “moe” character. I am probably going to take some flack over this from readers, but I feel like that term has taken on negative connotations in the English-speaking manga blogosphere that it doesn’t necessarily deserve. I’ve found a lot to like within the vast sea of what’s been labeled “moe” by western readers.

MICHELLE: I don’t use the term much, but to me what made her seem so moe before was not just her uber-cute appearance, but that she tripped and fell every three steps, et cetera. Now I think that was an act she was putting on to make her opponents underestimate her, which is ever so much more interesting.

I should note that the Blade Children themselves are probably the weakest part about this series, and that the mystery concerning them is not very interesting. I’m slightly more intrigued by what Ayumu’s older brother is up to, but the *real* draw in Spiral is watching Ayumu grow in confidence and develop a closer relationship with Hiyono, who not only sticks up for him when he’s feeling down but craftily takes action to try to dispel his ever-present self-doubt.

MELINDA: I’ll definitely have to keep this series on my “to read” list.

MICHELLE: You should! Plus, it’s a shounen series that finishes! It’s fifteen volumes long, so Yen Press, who has recently released volume twelve, is in the home stretch now.

What’ve you been reading?

MELINDA: I started the week with a couple of new shonen series, the first being volume one of Bakuman, the newest collaboration between Death Note creators Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata.

The story follows two middle school students, Takagi and Mashiro, who decide to team up and become manga creators. Though the whole plan originates with Takagi (a top-notch student with a talent for writing), he eventually wears down artist Mashiro’s reluctance, thanks mainly to his exploitation of Mashiro’s crush on a female classmate (Azuki) who, he discovers, dreams of becoming a voice actress.

Like a plot from an old movie, Mashiro and Azuki promise to marry each other, but only after their dreams come true, until which time they will communicate only by e-mail. Determined to make this happen by the time they turn 18, Takagi and Mashiro dig in to try to create a manga good enough to be published in Weekly Shonen Jump.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Takeshi Obata, who drew one of my favorite manga series, Hikaru no Go, but I had some serious issues with Death Note, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first got a look at this series. Unfortunately, one of the aspects of Death Note that carries over here is its rampant sexism.

I won’t try to pretend that this release is my first experience with it since I was pretty vocal about it at the time, (back when I still read scanlations). And none of the feelings I had then have dissipated on a second read. “Men have dreams that women will never be able to understand” is still pretty much an all-time low in the context of my manga library.

That said, there is so much I love about this manga. Without the weight of a protagonist who is a self-righteous sociopath, Obata’s artwork here is filled with much of the same joy and energy he brought to the page in Hikaru no Go. And for those of us who have longed for a closer look into the lives of manga artists in Japan, the premise is, frankly, thrilling.

It’s impressive, too, how Ohba and Obata manage to craft this into a shonen manga, complete with rivalry, leveling up, and a heaping spoonful of “doing your best.” Also, It’s worth noting that the romantic subplot, which I initially found ridiculous and tiresome, reads as charming to me the second time around.

MICHELLE: Well, you can count on me to get fired up when you quote lines like that one about dreams! Could it just be the ignorance of a middle-school boy, or does it sound like the creator’s voice?

I knew that allegations of sexism had been lodged against Bakuman, but I’m still really looking forward to reading it. As you say, I’d love to read a manga that goes in-depth into the creation process itself. The manhwa Comic, from Yen Press, dabbled a toe in those waters (I still remember the great chapter where they go buy some screentone) but quickly abandoned that idea in favor of (admittedly addictive) romance.

MELINDA: Though the story’s teenaged protagonists spout some maddeningly sexist ideas in this volume, the line about men’s dreams actually comes from Mashiro’s dad (quoted by Mashiro’s mom) as he overrules his wife’s objection to her son becoming a mangaka. Now it’s certainly possible, given the subject matter, that this line was drawn from one of the mangaka’s own personal experiences, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

In terms of the setting, I had a pretty interesting conversation with Ed Chavez on Twitter a while back, regarding the series’ gung-ho attitude about Weekly Shonen Jump (pretty unavoidable since it runs in the magazine itself), the system their creators are bound to, and its overall effect on the industry. Most of it isn’t relevant to the series just yet, but I definitely look forward to discussing it here when we’ve gotten a bit further in.

So what else did you pull off the shelf this week?

MICHELLE: That all sounds quite fascinating, actually!

I didn’t quite pull this one off the shelf so much as “out of the pile,” but I read Natsuki Takaya’s sole short story collection, Songs to Make You Smile (the first of two music-related titles for me this week, actually). This collection, containing four stories plus a Tsubasa: Those With Wings gag story, was published in Japan in 1999, shortly after the launch of Fruits Basket, and features tales from various stages of Takaya’s career.

I enjoyed all of them, though some more than others. “Double Flower,” the story of the 19-year-old guy who loves quilting and crafts and his abrasive young niece/houseguest who nudges him into confessing his love to the girl he likes, is the one I liked the least, simply because I disliked the bratty kid a great deal. “Ding Dong” is a surprisingly sweet story about a girl named Chisato who’s left alone with her step-mom after her father dies in a car accident. The step-mother is young, so Chisato is certain she will eventually decide to strike out on her own life, but this doesn’t actually happen. The last page of this one made me go, “Aww!”

The title story is the strongest. Takahashi is a poor talker, and his surly-looking face is always frightening away girls and getting him into fights. His sole outlet for expression is music, and the band for which he is songwriter and lead vocalist has been given the opportunity to perform at a school event. When his bandmate’s sister, also afflicted with a countenance that leads other students to make incorrect assumptions about her, is targeted by some skeezy upperclassmen, Takahashi forgets all about his musical debut and wades in to defend her. It all ends with him singing his love to her, since he can’t speak it, and coaxing a rare smile from her by so doing. It’s really cute.

The fourth story, “Voice of Mine,” is a classical variant upon this featuring a violinist who’s always being compared to his famous parents. He wants to develop his own sound and is encouraged by an eccentric violist with a truly genuine style. The premise of this one reminds me a little of Nodame Cantabile, actually.

In the end, it’s a collection worth reading though I’m not sure how much of it I’ll go back and sample a second time. Surely not the Tsubasa story, which I found tiresome and unfunny.

MELINDA: You know, I find that most gag manga written by mangaka who don’t write gag manga falls flat for me, with a notable exception in Hiromu Arakawa, whose omake sections in Fullmetal Alchemist leave me rolling every time.

Overall, though, this sounds like a really interesting little collection. I’m even interested in the one with the bratty kid.

MICHELLE: Well, maybe I’ll hafta loan it to ya!

What other shonen goodness have you been sampling?

MELINDA: My big shonen goodie this week was volume one of Code: Breaker, a series that appears completely generic on the surface but is actually quite compelling, at least in its first volume.

Sakura is a delicate flower crying out for a man’s protection, or at least that’s what her male classmates would like to think. In actuality, she’s a talented martial artist who barely even notices that any of them exist.

A new transfer student, Rei, catches her attention, however, when she recognizes him from the scene of a gruesome murder. Though Sakura witnessed the slaughter herself, local authorities will not acknowledge that it ever even happened, leaving Sakura to take matters into her own hands.

Rei, as it turns out, is a part of a supernatural vigilante organization that stamps out criminals who are otherwise ignored by the law. As Sakura learns more about him, she becomes further horrified by his methods and his lack of respect for human life. Fortunately, new discoveries about herself may make Sakura uniquely qualified to stop him.

The secret to this manga’s success is the epic awesomeness of its heroine, who not only defies the expectations of her gender, but also remains completely unrelenting in her approach to Rei’s single-minded vigilantism. She’s at least as strong as he is and not the least bit deferential, which gets this series off to a very promising start.

With its strong female heroine and ruthless bishonen antihero, I’d almost expect to find it in an action-friendly shojo magazine (or at least Monthly GFantasy, heh), but no, it runs in the same magazine as, you know, Air Gear.

MICHELLE: I am actually planning to review Code:Breaker this week! Sakura sounds truly awesome, too. I love it when shonen series have strong female characters. That’s part of what appeals to me about Spiral, as well.

MELINDA: I love it when any series has strong female characters, which is far less common than I’d like. I think things could get really interesting in this series, too, in terms of Sakura’s beliefs versus the Code: Breakers and what kind of character she might become after being witness to so much death.

To put this series in perspective for those who know me: A dog dies horribly within the first couple of chapters, and I kept on reading. That’s how interesting I thought it was. Need I say more?

MICHELLE: Oh dear. Thanks for the warning.

MELINDA: Consider it a warning and a vote of confidence.

So, whaddaya got for your last book this week? Huh? HUH?

MICHELLE: The last title on my agenda this week is Alice the 101st, a new release under DMP’s Doki Doki imprint. This shojo series is about a boy named Aristide Lang who’s admitted to a music school as a special case. He’s entirely lacking in the basics and can barely read music, but when he performs the songs of his famous violinist father, he shines. His latent talent inspires the admissions committee to accept him, but things are not easy for “Alice” once the wide disparity between his skill and his classmates’ becomes known.

The setting is really interesting and I like some of the supporting characters, but I find lazy, spaz-prone Alice difficult to like so far. He doesn’t seem to have any ambition to practice, except for the fact that if he gets good enough he’ll be able to use a violin that once belonged to his father, nor to learn the basics of reading music, except when an upperclassman reminds him that emulating another’s sound is only copying. Maybe he frustrates me so much because, as a former piano teacher, I recognize that his type is extraordinarily difficult to instruct. As one professor mutters, “I hate geniuses.”

Still, he has potential not only to be a special performer but to be the only one who can rival Maximilien, the undisputed best of the first years. In this way, it actually reminds me of Hikaru no Go. The newcomer has a really, really long way to go before the Maximilien will even acknowledge him as a rival, but there’s just something about his playing that hints at the brilliance he may be able to achieve if he works hard enough. Watching him grow as a musician as well as a disciplined person will likely be both satisfying and enjoyable.

MELINDA: Oh, how charming! I’m easily taken in by lazy geniuses, so this sounds like the perfect series for me. :D

So, is the musical setting realistic at all, if not in terms of technical details, at least in the musicians themselves? So often it seems like mangaka who try to write about music students really miss the mark on a lot of levels (Nodame Cantabile being a pleasant anomaly).

MICHELLE: It’s actually pretty well thought out, though I don’t know about realistic, necessarily. Mangaka Chigusa Kawai seems to have done a lot of research and wrote in her notes that she went so far as to devise curriculum for each school year. So, we see Alice in classes, some about theory and some group technique classes. People are practicing all over the place, and there are some specifics as to what Alice is learning in his lessons. Perhaps what impressed me the most, though, was a professor lecturing on the difference between how a violin is tuned versus the equal temperament system used with pianos.

MELINDA: This sounds better and better, I have to say. Do you know how many volumes it runs for? I’ve mainly seen short series (1-2 volumes) from Doki Doki.

MICHELLE: It’s ongoing in Japan. The fourth volume came out there in March, I believe. This might make it the longest series in the Doki Doki imprint, actually.

MELINDA: Well, that’s great news!

MICHELLE: I hasten to add that some of Alice’s fellow students are sort of over-the-top nasty to him, but I think that’s to be expected in an “underdogs triumph” story like this one. We don’t see much of Maximilien, or rather, don’t see much of him beyond everyone gazing at him as if he’s a sort of idol, but one brief glimpse hints that he might be amusingly absent-minded, so I’m looking forward to learning more about him, in particular.

MELINDA: This is quickly moving to the top of my to-read list, which I wouldn’t have expected from the premise alone.


MELINDA: So, on a very different note from that (and certainly anything else I read this week), I finally got around to picking up volume one of Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution from Yen Press.

I have to tell you, Michelle, I planned to hate this manga. A cookie-gobbling caricature of an overweight teen girl is surrounded by an assorted collection of ridiculously pretty boys who watch condescendingly over her while she diets? I may actually find that more offensive than “Men have dreams that women will never be able to understand.”

Once I finally forced myself to actually read the thing, though, I had to admit that a quick flip-through does not quite do the volume (or its premise) justice. The first chapter, an excruciating introduction to the series’ bland male harem, is pointless and truly painful, and I’m not actually convinced that it was ever intended to be in the same manga. Assuming one survives that, however, things begin to move slowly uphill from there.

I’ll probably forever despise the fact that overweight characters in fiction (of all kinds) are nearly always portrayed as single-minded gluttons who gorge themselves daily on candy and cakes, but I can appreciate the fact that Ugly Duckling‘s Hitomi at least has other interests, despite the fact that she’s always jonesing for food. Though this book is a long way from being a thoughtful examination of what it’s really like to struggle with overweight as a teen (or at any other age, for that matter), it portrays Hitomi as a determined, likable girl whose personal qualities are genuinely valued by those around her. She even seems to attract some vaguely romantic attention from amongst her harem of boys, though I’d bet good money that she doesn’t get any action ’til she drops the pounds. (That’s a bet I’d prefer to lose, by the way.)

I do have one particular bone to pick, here. I spotted a review of this title recently in which the reviewer praised the mangaka for actually drawing Hitomi as “a fat person” (or something to that effect). I must respectfully disagree. Hitomi isn’t drawn as “fat.” She’s drawn as a caricature.

While the series’ other characters get relatively detailed facial features–shaded eyelids, carefully lined, large eyes, real contour to the nose and cheeks–Hitomi gets two dots for eyes, a comic-strip nose, a Simpsons-quality mouth, and a couple of giant circles on her cheeks. She’s like a permanent chibi. Furthermore, the story’s other overweight character (a boy who supplies her with cookies, natch) is drawn in the same caricatured way. Newsflash, people: Fat girls have faces too.

It still sounds like I hated it, doesn’t it? I really didn’t. In fact, I’m even looking forward to seeing where it goes in the next volume.

MICHELLE: Y’know, when this license was announced, my first thought was, “Oooooh, Melinda is going to hate that!” I’m glad that it turned out to have some positive qualities. This may be off topic, but whenever I think of overweight characters in fiction, I always think of how admirably J. K. Rowling handled this. Both the good guys and the bad guys had some overweight people on their side, and there were more characters who happened to be fat and courageous and awesome than there were characters who were fat and evil in some way.

MELINDA: You know, that’s a good point. Though, man, slash fanficcers always sent Neville Longbottom to the gym before he could get lucky. That got on my nerves. Heh.

MICHELLE: I wouldn’t know about that. :) Well, maybe Hitomi won’t have to wait that long for someone to realize she’s the one.

MELINDA: She’s got some kind of special attention from a sort of male tsundere character, and if that doesn’t work out, there’s always her brother. I’m only half-joking about the brother thing. He’s got a total sister complex going on, yet he’s so dear about it, it isn’t even creepy. How does that work? It really should be creepy.

MICHELLE: Er, sounds pretty creepy to me.

MELINDA: I swear, it’s cute somehow. He’s so purely devoted, there’s nothing truly salacious about it.

MICHELLE: I employ my dubious face. This is another one on the pile, though, so perhaps I’ll see for myself soon enough.

MELINDA: I challenge your dubious face! To a duel! A damned dubious duel!

… Um. We should stop now, shouldn’t we?

MICHELLE: I think that would be best.

What more is there to say, really? Join us next week for the second installment of our new feature, BL Bookrack, and then again the week after for an all-new Off the Shelf!

Some discussion based on review copies provided by the publishers.

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  1. Women have dreams that men would never be able to understand.

  2. Danielle Leigh says:

    I’ve already raged about Bakuman on twitter but even more than the sexism I saw in the story, I was frustrated with people basically telling me I was *over-reacting* to the sexism in it. That makes me even more uncomfortable about the work since I don’t understand why anything gets a “pass” in this day and age. (Not you, by the way, but a number of other folks seems to feel the book’s sexism was no big deal).

    Since I always respect your opinion I *may* continue with the series but right now I don’t feel comfortable supporting this work by buying another volume. I just don’t see paying money to keep getting so offended and there is plenty of manga I can support instead these days.

    Meanwhile, every review of Alice 101st makes me WAAAAAAAAANT it so I need to get off my ass and just order it from amazon because I haven’t seen it stores here (which is a shame because it looks like a lovely book).

    • I don’t think you’re at all out of line with your outrage. I think all the stuff that bothered me most was in chapter two, and I wondered at the time whether Japanese readers reacted badly to it, since it seemed to tone down quite a bit after that. It’ll be interesting to see if my feelings about later chapters change at all this time around.

    • Just to share, I found this review really interesting. It includes some rumors about Ohba I wasn’t aware of, though I knew it was a pseudonym. Somehow I’d still just assumed he was actually male. Makes me want to reread Death Note.

      • Danielle Leigh says:

        that’s a great review, thanks for sharing! What I find most resonant in that review (and felt from reading the comic as well) was this notion that the boys are doing this “push back” on how all this “girly stuff” has invaded mainstream shonen comics. To which I say, “stuff shit, deal” but hah. I may be a little cranky by now.

        However, it’s pretty much a rule of shonen jump that you have to appeal to girls these days to be successful…so how exactly would these budding comic book-creators make it if they didn’t unbend a little and realize that girls read comics too? Very interesting dilemma there…..

        (also the observation about actual women “fucking up” heterosexual romance in the comic is brilliant and spot-on. That’s another thing that bothered me is that ridiculous promise to get married but to never communicate until that day. Gah. Just…gah!!!)

        • Danielle Leigh says:

          and. Um. That should be “tough shit” nor ur. “stuff shit”? Oh well, maybe that type will make you laugh *slinks away*

  3. Oh yes, Nodame Cantabile IS classical music of the manga world. If you do not know about classical music, it teaches you.

    It doesn’t sound like Alice 101st can even compare to Nodame, but I may give it a try since there’s currently no prospect for any more volumes of Nodame :( and it certainly sounds and looks better than La Corda D’Oro.


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