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Off the Shelf: Sports, Ghosts, Books, & Boys

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, we check out new volumes of currently-running series from Yen Press and Viz Media, as well as a sweet, new one-shot from Digital Manga Publishing.


MELINDA: Hi, Michelle! So… I am totally out of semi-clever lines with which to begin this exchange. Um. Got books?

MICHELLE: Have I ever! I came close to answering “Far too many,” but then wondered if that could ever really be true.

MELINDA: I think emphatically not. :)

MELINDA: They really are! Also, I have to say that your description of the book has completely charmed me. I hadn’t had much interest in checking out this title, but now I feel I must read it!

MICHELLE: More like there are far too many I want to read right this minute!

One book that I did manage to read this week is Cool/Uncool, a recent release under DMP’s DokiDoki imprint. Cool/Uncool follows a pair of life-long friends turned lovers as they progress from high school to college and deal with various insecurities in their relationship. In the title story, Yukihisa can’t figure out why his friend Takashi keeps avoiding him. Savvy BL readers will think “It’s because he loves you, silly!” and that does tie into it, but the actual reason is completely random and rather endearing.

Each successive story visits the boys after the passage of months or more and reveals the status of their relationship at that point in time. Much of the plot is derived from one fellow feeling like he’s the only one feeling a certain way, whether it be the desire to stay together forever or jealousy of a female classmate. In the end, the message is “be straightforward with your concerns,” which is not exactly the most riveting conclusion ever, but it fits well with such a cute and cozy story.

I liked the art in this one, as well. There are quite a few comedic interludes that look positively adorable, but the artist has quite a way with eyes. Here, check out this example! (see attachment)

Aren’t they pretty?

MELINDA: They really are! Also, I have to say that your description of the book has completely charmed me. I hadn’t had much interest in checking out this title, but now I feel I must read it!

I’m actually a huge fan of stories with small messages, and even more so of short stories that don’t attempt to overachieve. So often, the most profound thing a short story can accomplish is simply a moment of true intimacy between its readers and its characters. It sounds to me like these chapters read very much like that.

MELINDA: I’m actually a huge fan of stories with small messages, and even more so of short stories that don’t attempt to overachieve. So often, the most profound thing a short story can accomplish is simply a moment of true intimacy between its readers and its characters. It sounds to me like these chapters read very much like that.

MICHELLE: I’d say so. I had forgotten, for example, the frightening prospect of going to a different school than your significant other after graduation, and Cool/Uncool did a nice job of reminding me of that. Also, I failed to mention above that all the intimate scenes in this title are about 200% consensual, which will be of vital importance to some readers.

MELINDA: I’d say that’s of vital importance to me!

MICHELLE: Me, too. So, what have you got for us this week?

MELINDA: I’ve had some very enjoyable reads, comics-wise, including the latest volumes of two favorite series. The first is JiUn Yun’s manhwa Time and Again, which I discussed just recently in last week’s 3 Things Thursday. As you know, the series, set during the Tang Dynasty, revolves around exorcist-for-hire, Baek-On, and his bodyguard, Ho-Yeon.

Though both the last two volumes have delved a bit into these characters’ rather tragic pasts, this volume really gets to the heart of Ho-Yeon’s history and the events that led to the deep regret he’s carried with him all this time. It’s extremely moving, and I have to laugh now when I look back at my review of the series’ first volume, where I complained that its main characters were both “underdeveloped.” That’s certainly turned around over the past few volumes.

This volume also shows us Baek-On and Ho-Yeon’s introduction to each other, which manages to be tragic and a little bit funny at the same time. You know, I don’t think it’s everyone’s cup of tea, but JiUn-Yun’s sense of humor just really works for me. I am always delighted by it. Baek-On is such an… unfortunately honest character. He’s got no delicacy at all, but that’s really part of his charm.

Possibly the best thing about this volume, however, is that it also contains the first meeting between Ho-Yeon and Shin-Wal, the spirit-sword we’ve seen him with since the series’ first volume. It’s kinda beautiful, I have to say.

This is an especially warm volume, despite all its tragedy, and though the series’ original, episodic flavor has mostly flown out the window, I think the story is better for it. Don’t get me wrong, this volume still follows the two of them along on a few cases, but they’re far from the focus of the story anymore, which has just increased its interest for me.

MICHELLE: This sounds so wonderful; I can’t wait to dig in! I received my copy the other day but haven’t had a chance to read it just yet. The structure of Time and Again reminds me a little of Tsubasa RESERVoir ChroNiCLE, which starts as light-hearted shounen adventure but evolves into something more poignant over time.

MELINDA: What I love, too, is that I don’t know where the story is going. I don’t know how or if either of these two men will find some kind of solace or redemption in the work that they do. Despite the obvious pain they carry with them day-to-day, it’s the case-by-case “work” scenes that offer most of the series’ humor, and though much of what goes on in those sections is pretty dark, the characters hide away their real tragedies in those scenarios, so there’s much less gravity in the air then. None of this is a criticism, by the way. I *like* the fact that I don’t know where this is going. Anticipation without specific expectation is the very best kind ever.

MICHELLE: Oh, I definitely didn’t take it as criticism. I’m also partial to characters who hide their pain behind humor. This is my cue for a gratuitous Buffy mention.

MELINDA: Oh, well done, my friend, well done! :D So what’s next on your docket this fine evening?

MICHELLE: As it happens, I also read something that has improved since its debut volume! Perhaps it was because I knew to expect episodic vignettes about the power of manga rather than an actual storyline, but I enjoyed the second volume of Kingyo Used Books more than the first. This series, available online at VIZ’s SigIKKI site, revolves around the titular bookstore, its customers, and the way in which manga positively influences people’s lives.

A few of the characters featured in this volume include a spineless high schooler who learns to stand up for himself thanks to Osamu Tezuka, a tough-looking ouendan who forms a bond with a salaryman over a long-running love story, and a sorrowful boy looking for “a manga that takes you far away… somewhere, anywhere that isn’t here.” Some stories are more light-hearted than others; one particularly bittersweet tale involves a hostess who reads manga aloud to an abandoned child and comes close to bonding with the girl just in time for the girl’s mother to return and whisk her away. I love that the little girl sees manga panels as windows that allow her to see the story unfold.

My favorite stories, though, have to do with the staff of the bookstore. Natsuki, the acting manager, just kind of fell into her role when her grandfather fell ill, and she’s wondering if it’s really something she wants to do with her life. When sales are down, she decides to take the initiative and register for a used-book fair, which goes exceedingly well. I loved this chapter a lot, from watching Natsuki select the books to take (including a trip to the cavernous “dungeon” beneath the store that would be any mangaphile’s dream) to the way bookstore associates rally around to help her handle the brisk sales when Natsuki had been so stubborn about going it alone.

Readers looking for exciting drama will not find it in Kingyo Used Books, but if one approaches it with a relaxed frame of mind and the intent to simply rejoice in the awesomeness that is manga, it does not disappoint.

MELINDA: I’ve waffled a bit about reading this title. I have the second volume, but not the first, and since reviews of the first made me feel I wouldn’t like it, I haven’t wanted to make the investment to find out. This does sound more promising, but are vignettes about the power of manga really enough to carry a series? I’d feel more confident if it sounded like the staff’s through-line was more solid.

MICHELLE: I don’t think one would want to read more than one volume at a sitting, but given that it there’s about six months between releases, it works as an occasional pleasant read. Natsuki does decide that she loves the store after all, which might be explored more in the future; after all, a manga lending library that figured in to a story in volume one got a mention here when its future was secured thanks to a former customer being willing to take over the business from its aged proprietor. If something so minor gets follow-up, I can only assume Natsuki’s budding interest in the business will, too. Plus, there’s the fact that Kingyo’s procurement specialist, Shiba, harbors an unrequited love for Natsuki and makes no secret of it.

MELINDA: Unrequited love, always a good read!

MICHELLE: It’s not played very seriously, but it could be considered a plot. Sort of!

Anyway, what else have you got?

MELINDA: Plot, I’ve got! My second read this week was volume nine of Takehiko Inoue’s Real, a seinen sports series about men who play wheelchair basketball. Though I’m not a big fan of sports manga the way you are, this is really my kind of sports manga. It’s dark, gritty, and mature in the very best sense of the word.

Despite the introduction I just gave, what’s striking about this volume, is that it features no wheelchair basketball at all. Furthermore, it’s the first volume of this series I’d accuse of achieving almost a Shonen Jump sensibility. That’s not an insult, necessarily, but it is a bit surprising considering the content so far. The volume focuses exclusively on Nomiya and Takahashi, each of whom is facing a particularly difficult task. Nomiya, a bumbling high-school dropout who has never really played serious ball, has determined to go pro, and Takahashi, a fierce high-school athlete now paralyzed from the chest down, is struggling to find meaning in a body he can barely pull off the floor.

It’s Nomiya’s journey, especially, that creates the volume’s shonen-like tone, with emotionally escalating scenes driven by a level of brazen determination and raw inspiration that could rival that of any WSJ title. You can almost hear the power rock if you listen hard enough, as Nomiya firmly declares his goals, undeterred by detractors or doubt.

Fortunately, Takahashi’s story provides a nicely ambiguous contrast. The character’s constant need for external comparison–the way he compulsively ranks himself against other rehabilitation patients as though his entire self-worth relies on superiority to others–is pushed front and center, so much so that even he begins to see the impossibility of his system. The realization is subtle, but brutal, and his subsequent struggle to determine even a single, realistic goal for himself is genuinely painful to watch. His story is so compelling, I barely missed the wheelchair basketball, which is saying quite a lot.

MICHELLE: I am determined to read this soon. I worry a little, because I ardently love Inoue’s Slam Dunk, and, though I like dark and gritty, I’m not used to it in my sports manga. When they are playing, are the games riveting? Could you see yourself mainlining several volumes in a row?

MELINDA: I actually did marathon volumes 5-8 when I reviewed the series originally, and I could absolutely do it again. The important thing to understand, though, as a shonen sports fan, is that though the games are definitely dramatic, they are really not the focus of the series at all. Much more time is spent off the court than on, especially in recent volumes, and most of the drama revolves around the characters’ struggles that bring them to the game, rather than the game itself, if that makes sense.

MICHELLE: It does. There is a little bit of that in Slam Dunk, but I wouldn’t say it’s the focus of the series.

MELINDA: It wouldn’t be appropriate to the genre, I don’t think. Here, though, the focus feels exactly right. It’s an uncommonly moving manga, really. I can’t recommend it enough.

MICHELLE: And people with OCD like me will be happy to hear the tenth volume is coming out in Japan this month!

MELINDA: I’ll leave it to you to report things of that sort. :D

MICHELLE: As my husband would say, “That’s my gig.”

MELINDA: To which I reply, “Better yours than mine.”

MICHELLE: To which I reply, “Thank you. And good night.”

MELINDA: To which I… oh, never mind. ‘Night!


Join us again next week for an all new Off the Shelf!

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Comments

  1. Much more time is spent off the court than on, especially in recent volumes, and most of the drama revolves around the characters’ struggles that bring them to the game, rather than the game itself, if that makes sense.

    Heh. This sounds as if Inoue is channeling Mitsuru Adachi in this series. Of course, the drawing style is much more tasty.

  2. I love Real. As someone who went through an experience that left me partially disabled (it’s hard to explain. I’m visually impaired/blindish/Not as cool as Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender…) The stories of people who are overcoming sudden life altering disablement, so much more severe than my own, touches me deeply and gives me hope. This title deserves so much more attention, especially for “differently-abled” people. (I’d actually love to know how the manga is received by people with various disabilities in Japan and the U.S.)



Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Melinda Beasi, Melinda Beasi. Melinda Beasi said: Real, Kingyo Used Books, Time and Again, & Cool/Uncool in tonight's Off the Shelf! http://bit.ly/cExz8a @yenpress @Viz_Media @digitalmanga […]

  2. […] Melinda Beasi and Michelle Smith discuss new volumes of ongoing series in their latest Off the Shelf column at Manga Bookshelf. John Thomas includes some short reviews of […]

  3. […] Again, Jack Frost, and Aron’s Absurd Armada. I also take a look at the upcoming fourth volume of Time and Again in last week’s Off the Shelf column at Manga […]

  4. […] some of what I had to say about volume four: Though both the last two volumes have delved a bit into these characters’ […]

  5. […] to be the one to stand up for Takehiko Inoue’s Real. Here’s what I said about volume 9: “Though I’m not a big fan of sports manga … this is really my kind of sports manga. […]



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