Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with MJ & Michelle! I’m joined, once again, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
MICHELLE: MJ, I don’t mean to alarm you but I have some bad news. This column is going to self-destruct in five seconds unless you tell me about a manga that you read this week.
MJ: Gah, the pressure! The pressure! I can’t work like this, Michelle! Must… calm… down.
Okay. I had a bit of an odd week which kept me away from home a lot, so I didn’t have an opportunity to read any of the piles of manga I have staring down at me, day after day. To make up for this, I decided to check out some of the free manga I’ve mostly ignored online. Much of what I read was single chapters, but my cyberjourney first took me to Viz’s SigIKKI site, where I finally read the first volume of Natsume Ono’s House of Five Leaves, which is coming out in print next month.
I’ve had mixed reactions to Natsume Ono’s work so far. I liked Ristorante Paradiso, but had issues with Not Simple. *This*, however, I loved. It’s really my kind of manga in so many ways.
The story revolves around a samurai, Akitsu, who is dedicated to his vocation, but whose mild, even shy, personality has lost him his place among his kind. His timid manner is such a detriment, he can’t even hold a position as a bodyguard, so he’s often left with no money, scraping by on odd jobs which he finds fairly humiliating. Then he meets Yaichi, a powerful, charismatic guy who hires him for a one-time job. Akitsu is drawn to Yaichi’s personal qualities–the same ones he most painfully lacks–but his illusions are shattered when he discovers that Yaichi’s line of business is a sort of twisted vigilante kidnapping racket. Disgusted, Akitsu tries to distance himself from Yaichi and his group, but he’s undeniably drawn in by the warm relationship they all have with one another, which he finds difficult to let go.
What I love most about this story is its unusually passive protagonist. Akitsu is a wonderful character. He’s incredibly conflicted on just about every level. He’s attracted to Yaichi and repulsed by him at the same time. He’s dedicated to his duty as a samurai, but profoundly ill-suited to the job. He’s just about as lost as a person could be, and yet there’s a survivor’s instinct somewhere in there that keeps him living and makes him weirdly compelling, despite his limp personality. I can’t help liking him and it’s definitely not out of pity. Ono’s unique art style is especially poignant here, too, and I think that really helps develop the character.
The story moves quite slowly, but that’s really not the point. It’s all about this strange, vulnerable man, and whether he can truly discover family in a bunch of morally ambiguous outlaws. I had a lot of difficulty stopping after the first volume. It grabbed me that strongly.
MICHELLE: Wow, that seriously sounds fascinating. I’ve definitely enjoyed stories featuring a warm band of characters who are simultaneously criminals—Firefly, anyone?—so it sounds like I would adore this. Any parallels to make between Akitsu and Simon Tam? :)
MJ: Hmmmm, he’s really too passive to be Simon, and lacks Simon’s primary source of motivation (River). Akitsu has very little obvious motivation, aside from a vague duty to send money home to his family (particularly his brother, who has fallen into debt). When I think about it, though, I think Whedon would never write a character like this. He’s too honestly pathetic, in a way that isn’t at all funny. Whedon only likes pathetic if it’s funny. :)
MICHELLE: Good point.
MJ: This volume has very little humor at all, really. And there are no real heroes or villains to be found. Everything is painted in shades of unending gray. Yet it engaged me completely, from the very first page. I definitely want to pick this up in print. It’s a keeper.
MJ: So how about you? What did you read to save the
world, er, column?
MICHELLE: Well, I read some real winners this week, let me tell you. It’s not that they were bad—well, okay, one of them was kind of hilariously bad—but that each had difficulty simply making sense.
First up is the eighth volume of Moon Boy from Yen Press. I’ve read all of the previous volume of the series and I’m still occasionally confused by it; I can mostly grasp what’s going on, but the execution is just so slapdash sometimes that it seems like important moments don’t receive the weight they need to really allow the significance of what has happened to sink in.
For example, in this volume, protagonist Myung-Ee and her frenemy Sa-Eun have infiltrated the hideout of their enemy (to explain the nature of their conflict would require more words than it’s worth) to rescue their friends Ya-Ho and Yu-Da. There’s a scene in which Myung-Ee apparently breaks the enemy’s spell but all she did was say, “Arghhhhhh!” What kind of spell was it? How did she break it? Did I miss something? It doesn’t help matters that I forget who most of the supporting characters are in between releases; I really wish Yen Press would include a “Story So Far” refresher in their books. It has been eight months since the last one, after all!
That said, there are a few scenes that make this volume worthwhile, like when Sa-Eun realizes that his missing elder brother has been the enemy’s tool all this time and vows not to let this happen to his friend, Yu-Da, or when Myung-Ee’s past-life connection to Yu-Da is revealed. The story will be “continued and concluded” in volume nine, so here’s hoping that the resolution, at least, is coherent.
MJ: I have to admit, I was a little disappointed that you did not attempt to explain the premise. I mean, there’s almost no context in which the phrase “rabbits from the moon” would not be funny. :D
I’ve only read through volume three of this series so far, and I definitely understand what you’re talking about in terms of general coherence. It’s not that the series is bad, exactly, but sometimes it’s hard to determine whether the effort required to understand it is really worthwhile.
MICHELLE: I have read all but the final volume of the series and I still cannot answer your question about whether it’s been worthwhile. I am inclined to say no, honestly, which is a shame because I really don’t hate the series at all. I just wish that it were better!
MJ: I think that’s almost sadder than if you actually did hate it.
MICHELLE: It’s more frustrating, at least.
What other online goodies did you find?
MJ: Well, speaking of Yen Press manhwa, I took a trip over to the new Yen Plus website to check out the first chapter of a new manhwa series, Aron’s Absurd Armada. It’s a Korean webtoon (webcomic), which we haven’t seen a lot of yet in English (see Manhwa Bookshelf for more about that), so its style is closest to an American comic strip or a Japanese 4-koma.
With just a few strips up to start, there isn’t a whole lot yet to the plot (not that I’m sure there ever will be). So far, it’s a comedy about Robin, servant to a wealthy household, who gets roped into accompanying the family’s restless son on a sailing expedition. As it turns out, the son is determined to be a pirate (though he knows precious little about what that actually entails). Unable to turn down the prospect of substantial payment, Robin sticks it out (not necessarily without complaint) and, thanks to his unexpected skills as a swordsman, they even manage to pick up some flunkies along the way. The last character to be introduced in this installment is a young woman (repeatedly mistaken for a man) who evidently survived a shipwreck and has been cornered into joining the group as well.
This is a supremely silly comic, but I don’t actually mean that as a criticism. It’s light and whimsical, and though I had to read it through a couple of times to really get the premise, I found it genuinely enjoyable. I was amused to read, in Deb Aoki’s recent interview with Yen Press’s senior editor JuYoun Lee, that the publishers originally gave her the title as a present, with no thought of it being licensed. I have to say that my reaction to it was very much like Lee’s. There isn’t a lot to it, but it made me laugh.
MICHELLE: When the Yen Plus site first went online I briefly checked out Aron’s, but I didn’t get too far into it at the time. I was left with the memory of some really, really cute art, though. I’ll probably check it out when more of it’s available; is it still just the one chapter so far?
MJ: The art is, in fact, extremely cute. JuYoung Lee is right on the money, too, when she suggests that it will appeal to manga fans. The artwork, in particular, feels very manga-influenced, including just the way the comedy is presented, visually. The whole thing has a much more manga-fied look to it than any of the other Korean webtoons I’ve seen. If anything, it looks like a Japanese 4-koma more than a Korean comic. I think it’s probably a good choice for the magazine.
And yes, it’s just the one chapter so far. I’ll be interested to see where it goes from here.
So, what else didn’t make sense this week?
MICHELLE: Next up for me is Himeyuka & Rozione’s Story, also from Yen Press, which collects, according to its back cover, “four charming, melancholy vignettes” from mangaka Sumomo Yumeka, who has had a few BL titles released by DMP and who also drew the manga adaptation of The Voices of a Distant Star under the name Mizu Sahara.
This was the best of what I read this week, with a simple yet expressive artistic style that I really enjoyed. The title story is about a teenager living on her own who’s determined to put away childish things and the second, “The Princess of Kikouya in District 1,” is about the teen heir to a yakuza gang who’s supposed to marry someone from a rival gang in order to solidify an alliance but only has eyes for the kind boy at the ramen shop. Neither of these is a bad story, but both suffer from the same problem: predictability.
The third tale, “My Very Own Shalala,” is the story of a witch named Shalala whose powers are a fraction of what they should be owing to her half-human heritage. To combat this, she has come to the human world to collect the tears of a human boy. She sets her sights on Ueno, who at first appears to be a delinquent, but is subsequently revealed to be misunderstood. Yumeka herself admits this one’s a bit of a mess in her end notes.
The truly confusing story, though, is the final one in the collection, entitled “Robot.” In a dystopic future, procreation is limited to “worthy” individuals who earn the right to be reborn as clones. One such person created a robot companion named Yamato while she was human, and now he waits by her side while she grows old, dies, and is reborn over and over again. The overall premise is very intriguing but, like Moon Boy, things just happen too fast to make sense sometimes, like when an outing for cake suddenly becomes a brawl. I could follow it for a little while, but eventually I just gave up.
Though I wasn’t thrilled by any of these stories, I did like them well enough that my motivation to actually read the aforementioned works of hers available in English, most of which I own, has increased.
MJ: I have this sitting on my shelf as well, though until you mentioned it, I hadn’t put together that it was by the same mangaka who drew the Voices of a Distant Star adaptation, which I liked very much. That actually increases my interest in this.
Also, I’m dying to know whether I can make any sense out of the robot story. Heh.
MICHELLE: If you—or anyone reading this—can offer an explanation or even just an interpretation, I’d love to hear it! I should clarify that the ending of “Robot” is clear enough, so at least it doesn’t leave one hanging.
You made one more online foray, I believe?
MJ: I did! I actually expected this to be my favorite, just based on comments by other reviewers, yet out of all of these, it was the one that made the least sense to me. That would be the first chapter of Record of a Fallen Vampire, available online at Square Enix’s new site. Though I say “Square Enix,” from what I understand, the English translation is the one created by Viz for their print editions, so one could easily credit both. They even use the Viz cover on the site (which I’ve also used here).
Granted, I’ve only read the first chapter of this series (that’s all Square Enix has currently made available) but I admit I was still a bit unclear on the premise by the end. There’s a lot going on here–a world full of humans, vampires, half-vampires (called dhampirs) and some entity known as the “Black Swan.” Nearly everyone is out to kill Akabara (also known as the Red Rose), the super-powerful vampire king who is on a quest to free his queen from where she was sealed by an angry mob a thousand years ago.
There’s a lot of exposition here, but what really weakens this chapter for me is that it’s mainly doled out in long speeches by various characters rather than being revealed in a more organic way. I can understand why the author would want to spill the information this way. I’m sure it was the easiest choice by far. It’s also incredibly clumsy, and as a result, nothing feels at all genuine until about the last quarter of the chapter.
On the positive side, Akabara is satisfyingly ambiguous character who obviously has a deep backstory to plunder. Also, someone who at first appears to be a major character dies before the the chapter’s end–a Joss Whedon moment if I ever saw one. :D That’s nicely done, and provides some strong motivation for one I suspect will be an actual major character from this point forward.
The artwork is attractive and easy to follow. (I’m always happy when I can really follow action sequences, and I definitely can here.) Overall, I suspect I probably will like this, should I proceed on to further chapters, but based on this alone, I’d have to say I was fairly underwhelmed. And not just a little confused.
MICHELLE: This is actually a series I like, but I freely admit that the first chapter is not very easy to get into. Please believe me that, though the story gets kind of crackalicious at the end of volume three, it nonetheless will soon make much more sense than what you’ve read so far.
MJ: “Crackalicious,” I’m totally cool with. Honestly, that’s even an incentive. :D I’ll just be glad when all the clunky exposition has finally passed.
What’s up next in your Chronicles of Confusion?
MICHELLE: Sometimes, a title alone is enough to convince me I need to read something. Such was the case with Expecting the Boss’s Baby, a new Harlequin manga at DMP’s eManga site. “What a specific romantic fantasy!” I remarked to my husband shortly after spotting the new addition. “Next, there’ll be one called Being Spanked By My Step-Son!”
Expecting the Boss’s Baby is based on a novel by the prolific Leanne Banks, whose other works include titles like From Playboy to Papa, Expectant Father, and Expecting His Child. Sensing a theme? Millionaires and billionaires also feature prominently in her works and, in fact, Millionaire Husband, one of the first batch of Harlequin titles to appear on the site, is actually the sequel to Expecting the Boss’s Baby.
As one might expect, the plot here is incredibly silly. Kate and her boss, Michael, shared a night of passion two months before the manga begins. Kate is now pregnant, and when Michael finds out, he demands they get married. Michael grew up in an orphanage after the death of his unwed mother and doesn’t want his own child to suffer the same fate.
Kate’s dismayed because he’s being so controlling, but once she visits the orphanage and learns that Michael used to give his chocolate chip cookie to a handicapped kid, she decides that he’s really a kind person after all. On their wedding night, she thinks, “Oh, Michael. I promise that I will bake all the chocolate chip cookies you will ever eat from now on.”
I am not making this up.
Michael’s controlling ways continue, alas, and he doesn’t want Kate to leave the house or do anything except be his. When she goes into labor, though, and tells him that his own mother endured great pain to bring him into the world because she loved him, he is suddenly able to express his feelings for Kate and they presumably live happily ever after.
In this case, it wasn’t the plot that didn’t make sense to me—it’s the fact that there’s evidently a market for something like this! It’s not quite as crude as “win your man’s love with a baby,” but it’s a little too close for comfort.
MJ: You know, I’m sure this story is not meant to be hilarious, but… wow, I honestly laughed myself out of my chair while reading your description. I kind of want to read it just for the cookie line alone. It’s a little bit irresistible. I’m drawn to it… you know, in the same way I am drawn to, say, The Evil Dead.
So are there really a lot of women who fantasize about having a baby with their tyrannical boss?
MICHELLE: Yeah, I cackled aloud when I first read that line, myself.
As for this being a common fantasy, I really could not tell you. Michael’s not really tyrannical as a boss, though. More he’s cold and distant because he’s a very sad millionaire who doesn’t know how to love.
MJ: Oooooooh, I see. Yes, of course, what was I thinking?
MICHELLE: He has some sad millionaire pals, too, one of whom features in that sequel I mentioned. Also, if you can’t get enough baby action, The Billionaire’s Secret Baby (unrelated) is also available on eManga.
MJ: I can’t help but feel that we missed something crucial in our youth that led us horribly astray. It seems obvious now that becoming pregnant by a million(or billion)aire is the only life choice that really makes sense for a young woman. Wouldn’t you agree?
MICHELLE: Either that, or we could aspire to be the bride of a sheikh. That’s also very popular.
MJ: I think we must both now retire for an evening of sad self-reflection.
Um. So, join us next week for an all new Off the Shelf!
Some discussion based on review copies provided by the publishers.