MJ: Well, hello again, my friend! Does it seem possible that we’ve been writing this column together for nearly a year?
MICHELLE: Because I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished and all the series we’ve covered, I’d say it does, actually, but it’s certainly gone by swiftly!
MJ: Indeed it has! So to continue being swift about it, I’ll get right to business. What have you been reading this past week?
MICHELLE: Heaps and heaps of good stuff, actually! In particular, the latest volumes of two shoujo series that were originally published by Del Rey and which have emerged from a long, gloomy hiatus into the optimistic sunshine of Kodansha Comics!
First off, there’s volume two of Arisa by Natsumi Ando. I’d heard good things about Ando’s Kitchen Princess—I’ve yet to read it, though this will soon be rectified—so it didn’t actually come as a surprise that Arisa is a lot of creepy, suspenseful fun, but that doesn’t diminish my gladness at all. The gist of the story is simple: Tsubasa Uehara and her twin, Arisa Sonoda, were separated by their parents’ divorce and haven’t seen each other in three years. They’ve been writing letters, though, and Arisa’s always depicted her life as close to perfect, with lots of friends, a cute boyfriend, and a successful school career. Imagine Tsubasa’s surprise, then, when soon after meeting up again, Arisa attempts suicide.
Tsubasa is determined to get to the bottom of what’s bothering her sister, and so attends Arisa’s school in her guise. At first, all seems normal, but she soon learns about a bizarre weekly ritual in which the students submit wishes to “the King,” who will choose one to grant. No wish is beyond the King’s power, and Tsubasa witnesses him/her successfully “disappear” a pervy gym teacher in fulfillment of a student’s wish. Her investigation suggests that the King is the class bad boy, Manabe, and volume two picks up with a twist about the King’s actual identity and the revelation that someone knows who Tsubasa really is and wants her to back off, else they’ll do something to still-comatose Arisa.
I’m a big fan of sheer atmosphere, and Arisa has it in spades. No one is what they initially seemed to be, and Arisa’s supposed best friend, Mariko, is shaping up to be positively unhinged. Then there’s her mild-mannered boyfriend, who really can’t be that benign, can he? It’s twisty and turny and suspenseful in an extremely delightful way, and I am quite glad that Kodansha’s got it on a bimonthly schedule because I am honestly going to dive into volume three the moment I get the tape off the box.
MJ: Wow, you know, I’d read a little bit about this series, but your description is the first that’s made me want to run to the bookstore and grab it up for myself. I’m especially interested in all this atmosphere you rave about.
MICHELLE: Now I worry I’ve overstated its brilliance, but it really is both entertaining and unique. If I had to liken it to anything, it’d be After School Nightmare, which has a similar “who among my classmates is the one I seek” sort of thing going on, at least in the one volume I’ve read.
How about you? Read anything good?
MJ: I have! My week has had a distinctly different flavor than yours, but also publisher-specific. It’s been a Vertical week for me, beginning with the fourth and final volume of Nobuaki Tadano’s 7 Billion Needles, one of my favorite new series last year. Adapted from Hal Clement’s 1950 novel, Needle, this series follows a sullen teenager named Hikaru whose life has changed forever thanks to an alien parasite (later two of them) who takes up permanent residence in her body.
Though I complained here a few months ago that the series’ third volume had taken an unfortunate turn, leaving behind its striking tale about human connection in order to explore new, less-coherant themes, I’m pleased to report that this is far from fatal. Though the story’s new plotline involving a planetary macro-evolution persists in its final volume, the series’ real focus turns back to Hikaru, whose personal journey really is what makes the whole thing work.
Contrary to anything she might have believed just a few volumes ago, Hikaru’s got people worth saving in her life, and save them she does, without anything more than her own desire. Sure, she’s got superpowers of a sort, what with all those aliens rumbling around inside, but her real strength is her own, and it’s a strength that she’s discovered by simply being human.
With all the excitement and chaos of final battles and whatnot, Tadano’s horror-tinged artwork really shines in this volume, particularly in its most esoteric moments. I’d even go so far as to say that the “macro-evolution” business is actually saved by the artwork, which manages to express itself more clearly than the narrative in those sections. Another treat is “Hikhikomori Headphone Girl,” the short comic that provided the template for Tadano’s Hikaru, which is included at the back of the volume.
7 Billion Needles isn’t a perfect series, but at just four volumes, it’s one of the few short manga series I personally can see myself voluntarily rereading. Given my preferences for epic storytelling, that’s no small praise.
MICHELLE: I’ve always planned to read this series, but after two or three volumes of a four-volume series have come out, one begins to think, “Well, maybe I’ll just wait and read it all in one swell foop.” I’m glad to hear, though, that it comes to a satisfying conclusion!
MJ: It really does, and I think it probably reads even better all at once. I plan to try it that way myself.
So what else have you got for us this week?
MICHELLE: The latest volume in a series that I know you adore, Shugo Chara!. After having meant to do so for ages, I’ve finally caught up on this charming magical girl series, just in time for Kodansha to release volume ten. And what an important volume this is!
When the story left off, heroine Amu Hinamori and her friends were infiltrating the headquarters of a sinister corporation known as Easter, who had finally acquired the Embryo, the magical wish-granting egg (long story) for which they had recklessly been searching. Although I found the big reveal of Easter’s boss to be predictable, his/her reasons for acquiring the Embryo are not at all what I expected. Amu works her Shoujo Heroine Magic upon him/her as well as upon his/her chief minion, who happens to be the stepfather to her love interest, Ikuto.
This, in turn, leads to some resolution in Ikuto’s home life, as he is finally freed of his obligation to help Easter and gets the chance to fully explain himself to Tadase, Amu’s other love interest, who has hated him the past two years. This is the best part of the volume for me because, as I read earlier volumes, I started to question exactly what Ikuto’s Guardian Character, the cat-like Yoru, said about him. Guardian Characters are supposed to have some quality the child would like to possess, and what was there about sweet but kind of cartoony Yoru that a brooding high schooler like Ikuto would desire? And then it came to me… freedom. Yoru is free. He can sleep when he likes, eat when he likes… No one can make a cat do something it doesn’t want to do. Freedom is something Ikuto has never had, until now. And now that he does have it, he’s going to put it to good use.
And then Amu and her classmates, most of them sixth graders, prepare to graduate. Honestly, there is so much resolution here, I began to seriously wonder what kind of material Peach-Pit could find to fill in the final two volumes! I needn’t have been concerned, however, as the final handful of pages serve up a shocking development that will, I suspect, ultimately compel Amu to make real progress on discovering what kind of person she really wants to be.
MJ: I’m so pleased that you are enjoying this series! Yes, I do adore it, and I’ve spent pages and pages of webspace explaining exactly why, so I won’t go into a lecture now, but yes. You’re so much on the nose regarding Ikuto and Yoru. And, okay, I will go on slightly about one thing. What I especially love about Amu as a heroine is that unlike so many shoujo heroines these days, she’s not an “ordinary” girl with no particular special qualities other than just being the heroine of the manga. She’s confused and unsure of who she is and who she even wants to be, but she’s got a multitude of possibilities in front of her. And though she’s interested in boys, certainly, her real journey is about choosing her own path, not choosing who to walk with. If that makes sense.
MICHELLE: It makes perfect sense, and that’s a great point about Amu! As a result, it doesn’t present as false when several boys are interested in her, like it does when the heroine is sort of hopeless. The series is magical girl done right, and I’m a bit sad that Peach-Pit hasn’t written more in this genre, though I’m now interested in checking out Zombie-Loan, another of their series (released in English by Yen Press).
So, you said it was a Vertical night, eh? What else is on the menu?
MJ: My second Vertical read this week was Usamaru Furuya’s Lychee Light Club. Adapted from a theater piece of the same name, Lychee Light Club is the story of a group of middle school boys who have created their own secret society sort of dedicated to their general rejection of the adult world.
As the story begins, they’ve just completed construction of a lychee-fueled humanoid machine (much in the mold of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster) apparently for the purpose of kidnapping pretty, young girls. After some trial and error, as the machine learns what things like”pretty” and “young” actually mean, they manage to capture one in particular whom they intend to imprison indefinitely as their own personal idol.
There are a couple of parallel plots going on here. When the boys are out at night, the girl ends up befriending the monster, tapping into its desire to become more human. Meanwhile, the boys are fighting amongst themselves over the morality of what they’re doing, who’s in charge, who’s devoted to whom, and so on. The overall point of it seems to be that the boys become monsters while their monster becomes human, though some of the specifics along the way get a bit muddled.
Let me begin by saying that I found this manga really fascinating and incredibly striking, visually. The whole thing feels like a theater piece, more than any comic I’ve ever read, and it’s honestly stunning. I am thrilled to have read it for this element alone.
That said, I also think it’s kind of a mess. Though the boys’ inner society is decently fleshed out, what I’m really missing here is a sense of context. I get what they’re doing, but I don’t get why. They’re rebelling against a world we never really see, and as a result, we can’t understand who these boys are. Where do they come from? What’s sickened them so much about the grownup world? And what kind of society do they live in where they can carry on with heinous crimes like kidnapping, mutilation, and murder without anyone even noticing?
There’s a lot here I can take on faith as a reader. I don’t need to know how they built a monster that runs on lychee fruit, for instance. It’s incredible, but well within what I’m willing to accept as premise. But the lack of context for the boys’ self-made way of life keeps me from being able to embrace Furuya’s universe fully, and that’s enough to keep the story from becoming truly engaging.
There are a lot of things that could be said here, too, about the manga’s extreme violence and treatment of women–issues that have been covered quite beautifully already by Kate and David. Overall, though, my biggest personal obstacle with this story was its lack of context for the boys’ actions. Without that, I found it difficult to commit as a reader.
MICHELLE: Believe it or not, this actually reassures me that I will find something to like about it! I haven’t read it yet, and therefore haven’t read Kate and David’s piece, but just the premise alone made me a little wary. I can deal with a few flaws if I get something stunning out of the deal!
MJ: I hope that you will find something to like about it. I certainly did. And I’m quite interested now in reading more of Furuya’s work.
Well, wow, talk about swift, nine-thirty and we’re already done? Whatever will we do with ourselves?
MICHELLE: My sink is full of dirty dishes, so it seems my fate is predetermined.
MJ: Well, that’s depressing. Godspeed?
MICHELLE: Well, I have got a dishwasher, at least.
MJ: My pity has turned to sheer envy.
MICHELLE: You poor soul.