Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with MJ & Michelle! I’m joined, once again, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
MJ: So, after a weekend at New York Comic Con, where I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss manga with a bunch of smart fans and critics, I have returned home to this column… where I enjoy the opportunity to discuss manga with a smart fan and critic.
I spend money on cons why?
MICHELLE: Actually, I’m kind of relieved I didn’t spend a bunch of money to go, given the paucity of new manga licenses, although I admit not getting to meet people as a result is a serious drawback.
MJ: Well, I think the company right here is pretty good. Though, as I gaze at my dinner of frozen pizza, I’ll admit that the food in New York was better.
In any case, with or without new manga licenses, we have plenty of current titles to discuss right here. Why don’t you start us off?
This week I got caught up with Rumiko Takahashi’s latest series, RIN-NE. I used to read each new chapter of this series online, but fell out of the habit, and had volumes three and four here demanding my attention. RIN-NE is an episodic supernatural comedy from the pages of Shonen Sunday and features Rinne Rokudo, a “sort of” shinigami whose chief character trait appears to be stinginess, and Sakura Mamiya, a human girl who can see spirits and who helps Rinne bring closure to those hanging around their school and send them off to the wheel of reincarnation.
Volume three introduces a new character, Tsubasa Jumonji. He’s an exorcist, though he seems to think all ghosts are evil, and immediately asks Sakura to go out with him. She’s not enthusiastic but doesn’t exactly reject him, either, which troubles Rinne. Even though he tells Sakura he has no interest in going out with anyone, he’s beginning to ponder what she means to him. For her part, Sakura is incredibly level-headed and calm, to the point where neither boy has any inkling what’s really going on in her head.
Still, Tsubasa becomes a part of the gang and the trio contends with the ghost of a boy who would like one fun date with the girl he liked before passing on, a toilet-haunting spirit, evil mechanical pencils, and Rinne’s mooching dad, who is the president of a damashigami (a corrupt shinigami who harvests the souls of those not yet destined to die) company and intends for Rinne to inherit. An incredibly over-the-top fight ensues, which I can’t fully describe except to say that it features a giant slab of wagyu beef and a mysterious stranger in a seal costume.
To look at RIN-NE objectively, I admit that this is quite a lot of wacky hijinks with very little payoff in terms of plot or character relationships. Still, it’s kind of… homey and pleasant, which is just what one needs sometimes. Plus, the tiny dribbles of romantic angst ensure that I’ll be coming back for more.
MJ: Now, I have to admit that, with the exception of Maison Ikkoku, none of Rumiko Takahashi’s work has ever really charmed me, and I wasn’t drawn in much by RIN-NE‘s early chapters online. Would you say that I gave up on the series too soon?
MICHELLE: Hmm… that’s hard to say. Personally, I think it’s better than it was at the beginning, but it’s not very different than it was then, if that makes any sense at all. Granted, this is coming from a person who has faithfully purchased 53 volumes of InuYasha so far, so perhaps a large granule of salt is required.
MJ: You know, when I see that kind of devotion… I think the problem must be me. :D I’m kind of interested, though, to see whether “better” or “different” is really what I’d be looking for. I might have to check it out and see.
MICHELLE: The good thing about the series is that you should be able to just hop right in at, say, volume four and see whether you react differently now.
And speaking of reactions, why don’t you share some for something you’ve read?
MJ: Well, okay! I had a pretty great experience with both of my reads this week. One I expected to love, one I didn’t, and both of them I enjoyed more than I’d anticipated. I’ll start with the one I expected to love, which would be volume three of Twin Spica. I’ve already named this as my favorite new series this year, so my expectations were pretty high, but this volume managed to exceed them anyway.
Volume two ended with some drama that I expected would overwhelm the series for a while, but though it was certainly the focus of the first chapter or so here, the way it worked itself out was fresher and more poignant than I could have imagined.
Everyone in this series has suffered loss of some kind, but what is rare in a story with a teenaged protagonist is that the pain and loss of the story’s adult characters is given the same weight as the pain of its teens. And though the series is being marketed heavily to YA audiences here in the US, I think this is one of the aspects of the series that most reveals its originally intended demographic.
“I wonder why all grown-ups smile so sadly,” Asumi ponders, though she nearly answers her own question as she goes on, “I wish Miss Suzunari, Mr. Lion, Dad, Mr. Sano… I wish everyone could go up there.” That so many before her have already failed to achieve the very dream she now pursues may be a realization that still eludes Asumi, but it is not at all lost on readers, who are struck with this painful reality with the same force as the story’s ambitious teens put into trying to ignore it.
That said, there is just as much here for teen readers as there is for adults. The devotion the students in this story demonstrate toward each other, even as they compete for seats on the same spacecraft, is beautiful to behold. By the end of this volume, I had tears running down my face, and I challenge any reader to avoid the same fate, adult or teen.
MICHELLE: I’m planning to get caught back up with Twin Spica as soon as volume four comes out in a couple of weeks. I now can’t wait to do so, based on this description. I always love when books marketed for a YA audience don’t ignore their adult characters; most of my favorite characters in the Harry Potter series (excepting Ron) are all of Harry’s parents’ generation!
MJ: It’s funny that you bring up Harry Potter, because one of the things that got me all worked up at the end of the second volume of Twin Spica was a teacher holding such a grudge against another adult, that he’d punish the child of that person, despite her innocence. I despised Severus Snape as a teacher for that reason, and was prepared to go through that again here, but the story turned out to be more sophisticated than J.K. Rowling’s–again, probably due to the fact that it was written for an adult audience to begin with. Kou Yaginuma does not hit the black and white quite so hard in his story.
Mr. Lion has some really great moments in this volume, too, which is always a draw for me. I’m endlessly charmed by his presence in this series, and the way Yaginuma mixes tragedy and whimsy to enrich his heroine’s inner life.
MICHELLE: I fully admit Snape is a bad teacher and often behaves childishly, but I still nurture a certain fondness for him. Perhaps it’s all due to Alan Rickman and his cute Snape hair.
MJ: You know, people try to pretend that hair doesn’t matter, but they are only denying the TRUTH.
So, what’s your next selection for this week? Any cute hair?
MICHELLE: Well, there’s a good deal of artfully shaggy and/or tousled hair of the BL variety in the second volume of Yokan, by Makoto Tateno. In the first volume, subtitled Premonition, Akira, the singer in a successful band, convinces Hiroya, a slacker actor, to return to a career in music after hearing how talented he truly is. They become lovers, but they’re rivals as well, which is a pretty interesting dynamic.
Volume two, subtitled Noise, is less dramatic than the first, but also more loving. Akira and Hiroya are in a committed relationship now, but both still see each other as rivals. To quote Akira, “It’s true that he and I are an item, but it’s also true that there’s never a time when I’m not trying to best him.” In addition to loving each other as people, they also need each other in order to be their best creatively, which makes for a delightfully equal relationship between them.
I always appreciate the effort Tateno puts into her plotting; while the story here is not the most exhilarating around—Akira, in order to prevent Hiroya from being tempted to accept an acting gig, poaches the film’s director for a music video and simultaneously gives a rousing performance to show Hiroya he’d better not slack musically—it’s at least very different from other BL around. When many second volumes introduce romantic rivals to threaten the lovers’ happiness, Yokan takes an entirely different route.
MJ: I always love romances in which the characters’ greatest obstacles are themselves. It’s those stories that feel really true to life to me. And it sounds a little bit like Akira considers acting to be his real rival, anyway. Am I wrong?
MICHELLE: It’s not that Akira feels threatened by acting; his motivations are more complicated than that, I think. To me it seems that, first, he wants Hiroya not to back away from something he’s incredibly good at, secondly, he wants to preserve the competition between them and, third, he wants to feel like he is the one with the most influence over Hiroya, not some director with whom Hiroya had a relationship (or at least slept with) in the past.
MJ: It all sounds pretty interesting. I’m sold!
MICHELLE: Then my job here is done!
What else have you got? :)
MJ: Weeeeeeell, at the last minute I got my hands on the first volume of The Story of Saiunkoku, a manga series based on the light novels by Sai Yukino.
The story revolves around a young woman named Shurei Hong, whose family, despite their noble bloodline, has fallen destitute. Shurei lives with her father (and their sole remaining retainer) and spends most of her time trying to earn money for the family, so when the opportunity to make 500 gold comes around, there’s no way she can say no, even if it means becoming consort to the country’s famously ineffective emperor. The emperor is a slacker with no interest in government and even less in women–two points that Shurei is tasked with remedying with by way of her civil responsibility and feminine wiles.
Despite the fact that I’d heard positive buzz about this series (mainly from you), based on that premise, I admit I was more than skeptical. The manga’s opening chapter didn’t do much to sway me, either, with its gag sensibility and creepy romantic overtones, all of which seemed contrary to the gravity of Shurei’s actual circumstances.
Fortunately, it quickly became clear that my first impressions were just wrong. While the series’ premise, as stated, is absolutely correct, its execution is thoughtful and unexpectedly nuanced. And though the story first seems to be crafted out of the same, tired tropes that dominate series like Stepping on Roses, each of these standard elements–the happy-go-lucky heroine, the over-the-top humor, the contrived matchmaking–becomes fresh and even insightful in Sai Yukino’s hands.
The same can be said for the story’s characters, each of whom turns out to be much more interesting than the shojo stereotypes he or she represents. Like all of us, the roles they each play with each other are the result of everything they’ve had to do to survive their lives so far. Nobody is perfect (or even perfectly evil, at least from what we’ve seen), and since flawed characters are generally the most compelling in any story, this makes for a very rich experience overall.
MICHELLE: I think you’ve hit it on the head when you say “Like all of us, the roles they each play with each other are the result of everything they’ve had to do to survive their lives so far.” Until we understand why Ryuki behaves like he does, he was just another too-glompy happy-go-lucky kind of guy. But in reality, there’s a reason for his behavior—including his ineffective stint as emperor—that is only beginning to become clear for the reader. By the end, I found him quite adorable.
MJ: I’d say adorable and also potentially dangerous. Not in a bad way necessarily, but he’s a guy who has really had to learn how to lie, and that makes him a bit of a loose canon. But that’s what’s great about everyone in this story! With no real exceptions (not even Shurei, I would submit) we don’t really know who anyone is by the end of the first volume. We know enough to know that there is much more to each of them than meets the eye, but each of these characters is complicated in his or her own way.
And speaking of the eye, it doesn’t hurt that Kairi Yura’s drawings are just as pretty as can be. Both Shurei and her emperor are blessed with the power of good hair.
MICHELLE: Indeed they are. And we both know that that trumps everything else!
MJ: In manga, as in life, it’s all about the hair.
I haven’t seen the series’ anime adaptation, but I’m heartened to know that even in the light novels, they probably still had good hair.
MICHELLE: Kairi Yura illustrated those as well, I think, so I’d say it’s a certainty!
MJ: Yukino chose her hair well.
That’s all for this week’s column! Join us again in two weeks for an all new Off the Shelf!