MICHELLE: Gee, they told me that we’d be holding Off the Shelf here this week, but it’s dark and doesn’t look like anyone’s here yet…
Er. Sort of?
MICHELLE: OMG, no way! You guys~!
KATE: It’s OK, Michelle–we figured you might be on to us. But you do an excellent job of feigning surprise, if that’s any consolation.
DAVID: I made punch! It’s vivid pink and thick with booze!
MJ: I’ll take a glass of that punch!
MICHELLE: Well, I did kind of invite all of you here to celebrate not only my official induction into the Manga Bookshelf family, but also the one-year anniversary of Off the Shelf!
DAVID: And we’re thrilled to be here!
MJ: That’s right, we’ve actually been doing this column for a full year as of today. How wonderful that this coincides with Michelle’s official entry into our ranks!
KATE: Call me a skeptic, but that seems planned!
MICHELLE: I can vouch for it being a happy accident! Once we realized the coincidence, we knew we had to have a partay!
MJ: So, we’ve never tried to do this with more than two people before. I guess I should ask someone… So, David, read any good books this week?
DAVID: Ah! I have the perfect tonic for skepticism! And it comes in an omnibus-sized dose!
MICHELLE: Lay it on us!
DAVID: Indeed I did! When not hiking the canyons of southern Utah or trying to figure out how the lights worked in a Las Vegas hotel, I was paying a visit to CLAMP Land.
Now, based on what I’ve read of their work, I’m not a huge CLAMP fan. I think they can be pretty self-indulgent, and coherent narrative is not their highest priority. So I was totally delighted to see how focused Cardcaptor Sakura is. I read Book 1 of Dark Horse’s re-release while I was on vacation, and it was a complete treat. (I also suspect I was the only 40-something gay man in Utah who happened to be reading Book 1 of Cardcaptor Sakura at that point in time, which was gravy in a strange way that I can’t fully explain.)
Everyone probably already knows this, but it’s in the magical girl genre. Our heroine, Sakura, finds a dusty old book that used to contain the powerful Clow Cards, which grant the user various abilities. The guardian of the book, an adorable little whatsit called Kero, informs Sakura that she has magical abilities and can collect the missing cards, thus preventing unspecified disaster. It’s your basic gather-stuff-and-get-stronger structure, but it isn’t bogged down in the details of that ongoing quest. The CLAMP quartet doesn’t neglect Sakura’s card-capturing adventures, but they aren’t encyclopedically obsessed, either.
Their primary interest seems to be to give you reasons to like Sakura and her friends and family, and they knock that out of the park. Sakura is spunky and funny. She knows she’s a novice at the whole magic thing, but she’s not insecure about it. She has good instincts and trusts them, and she has reliable helpers. There’s the previously mentioned Kero, and there’s her rich classmate Tomoyo who, in addition to being unfailingly supportive, provides fabulous costumes for Sakura and chronicles her adventures on video. She’s like Edna Mode with a camcorder.
I like Sakura’s brother, Toya, and his twin impulses to tease and protect Sakura seem entirely credible. I like Sakura’s rival in card collection, Syaoran, mostly for the fact that Sakura seems generally unfazed by his criticisms and finds him a useful indicator that she’s on the right track. And while I don’t have much of an opinion on Yukito, Toya’s best friend, I find the fact that Sakura and Syaoran both have huge crushes on him to be totally adorable and ceaselessly amusing. In fact, the undercurrents of homo-romanticism (I can’t really call it homo-eroticism) in the book give it such an interesting flavor, because they’re such non-issues. They’re just believable side notes that make things livelier.
I’ve already used the word “adorable” twice in this review, and you should gird yourself for me using it again, because this book is adorable in all of the best ways a thing can be adorable. The character designs? Adorable. The jokes and romance? Adorable. The sparkly, easy-to-read art? Adorable. It’s cheerful, heartwarming stuff that still manages to be thoughtful and exciting, and I can’t wait to read more of it, because, beyond being very endearing magical-girl manga, it seems like it might be heading interesting, even daring places. I’m not ready to excuse CLAMP School Detectives or the song lyrics and angel drag in Clover or anything that drastic, but this definitely gives CLAMP one for the win column.
MJ: David, the way you describe this, I feel like I need to rush out and buy the Dark Horse editions RIGHT NOW.
DAVID: You totally do. It is the best kind of cute manga. Of course, you’re the real CLAMP devotee of the group, Kate. What did you pull off the shelf?
KATE: Not CLAMP, I’m afraid! I think I’m beginning to outgrow them, honestly; when I want melodramatic, inter-dimensional craziness, I’m more inclined to reach for Keiko Takemiya or Saki Hiwatari these days. I still plan to buy Magic Knight Rayearth, X/1999, and Gate 7 as they’re released, but I don’t feel that same sense of giddy anticipation about a new CLAMP title that I might have back in the day. (Mind you, by “back in the day,” I mean, “about four years ago, when David interviewed me about my CLAMP habit.”)
No, I just finished the fourth volume of Neko Ramen. As the title suggests, Neko Ramen features a cat who likes noodles — or, to be more precise, a cat who runs a small ramen joint. The joke, of course, is that he’s a cat; the restaurant’s bathroom is a back-room letterbox, the dishes frequently come with cat-hair garnishes, and the food is all but inedible from a human perspective.
What makes Neko Ramen such an unexpected joy is that Kenji Sonishi goes a step further with the jokes; yes, there are scratching post gags in later volumes, but most of the series’ humor is rooted in Taisho’s crazy business schemes. Taisho is always cooking up new strategies for improving business, strategies that, on their face, make good sense: discount cards, buyer reward programs, giveaways. In practice, however, Taisho has a knack for undermining himself, developing ill-advised dishes — boomeramen, anyone? — and promotions that repel more diners than they attract.
At the beginning of volume four, for example, Taisho decides to “go green” and substitute hand-made clay bowls for plastic ones. The problem? His paw prints and fur are embedded in the new serving dishes. (“I feel kind of dirty eating this,” a customer mutters as Taisho serves him his meal.) An attempt to make 3-D noodles similarly goes awry: though the dish looks cool when viewed through 3-D glasses, Taisho used real paint to color the noodles red and blue, making them unsafe to eat.
The series’ best running joke is that Taisho hasn’t grasped his true market value. Taisho has figured out that animals are a potential draw for customers, however, and is endlessly experimenting with mascots and costumes. In volume one, for example, he himself dons a crab suit, while in volume four, he hires someone to greet customers dressed as a polar bear. (In a weird touch, the guy in the suit is actually an anteater.) The irony is that Taisho resists any attempt to make himself the star attraction; he vehemently refuses to act cute and cat-like for one of his animal-loving customers, viewing it as an affront to his dignity.
Better still, Neko Ramen reads like a good newspaper strip. The jokes and stories are self-contained, so readers can jump into Neko Ramen without knowing anything about the characters. But if you do choose to spend time with Taisho and his friends, you’ll find the humor has more layers than meet the eye.
MJ: Kate, I haven’t read any of this series, but you’re making it sound cuter to me than it has in the past.
KATE: I think Neko Ramen succeeds precisely because it isn’t cute. There’s a gleeful, absurd quality to many of Neko Ramen’s jokes. I mean — boomeramen, the dish that comes back to you? That’s both groan-worthy and totally inspired.
DAVID: It sounds great, but I’m confused. I thought all four-panel manga had to feature four to six high-school girls of different but complementary temperaments.
KATE: Me, too–that’s why I’m not usually a 4-koma kinda girl. Neko Ramen is the anti-Sunshine Sketch.
MICHELLE: I think I need another hit of punch after being reminded of Sunshine Sketch.
MJ: Pass some of that punch over here.
MICHELLE: Here you go. I also brought you one of those swirly bits of ham with a toothpick. So, what’d you read this week, MJ?
MJ: This week, I finally caught up with volume seven of Kou Yaginuma’s charming series, Twin Spica. This is a double-sized volume with a lot going on, especially for this type of manga, which I tend to think of as sort of sweetly lazy in terms of pace. It’s a warm, gentle manga, with just enough darkness to make it incredibly compelling, and this volume is a perfect example of that. We find out more about Marika’s unusual origins in this volume, and we get a bit more backstory for Asumi’s father, too.
Something I’ve really enjoyed about this series in its most recent volumes is the hint of teen romance, I think particularly because it is presented much more subtly than what I’m accustomed to in school-based romances, most of which are shoujo. This actually reminds me more of the YA novels I loved most as a teen and pre-teen, which were character-driven, certainly, and always contained some small nugget of romance, but were much less romance-focused than most of the shoujo I (gleefully) read. Yeah, Anne Shirley was *totally* going to get together with Gilbert Blythe someday, but most of the story was about Anne herself, only leaning heavily to romance in later installments of the series.
Despite its seinen roots, Twin Spica, to me, feels like one of these stories. It’s like Lucy Maud Montgomery, Maud Hart Lovelace, and Margaret Sutton all wrapped up together… IN SPACE. Okay, not really in space, but you get my point. It’s got all the best qualities of my favorite old YA novels, along with all the best qualities of my favorite younger-aimed sci-fi novels, with a small helping of whimsy on the side. Mr. Lion is a particular favorite of mine, and I think even Anne would have had difficulty dreaming him up.
I also really love that fact that though all the boys in this story seem vaguely (or not so vaguely) fascinated with Asumi, it’s because she’s genuinely awesome. Their interest in her is not remotely inexplicable. Also, all three of the series’ main female characters are really fantastic and richly written. Late in this volume, when the three of them are teamed up for a seemingly impossible mission, one of the boys observes that their team “has the toughest members.” And it’s wonderfully, actually true.
I know we’ve all praised this series in our blogs at least once, so none of this is news. But I continue to be bowled over by the loveliness of this series.
DAVID: Twin Spica is one of those series that just get better as you consume more of it. Not unlike this punch.
MICHELLE: I don’t know how I ended up so far behind on Twin Spica, but the Anne Shirley comparison makes me regret this terribly. It’s nice to think this series may be as meaningful to some tween girl as Anne of Green Gables was to me.
MJ: You know, I think it could have been that for me, easily. I dreamed so often of flying into space in those days. This really would have been a meaningful series for me. It’s a meaningful series to me now.
So what about you, Michelle? What do you have to share on this super-celebratory occasion?
MICHELLE: I have lately been loving the heck out of SangEun Lee’s manhwa series, 13th Boy, and its seventh volume (due later this month from Yen Press) is no exception.
One of the most endearing quirks about 13th Boy has always been Beatrice, the talking cactus who serves as confidante and advisor to Hee-So Eun, the series’ slightly spazzy protagonist. Beatrice watched over his master as she attempted to land the guy of her dreams, Won-Jun Kang, and now that she’s finally succeeded, he’s feeling lonely and jealous. More to the point, he has realized that he has feelings for her.
It’s these feelings that allow Beatrice to change into his human form (usually only possible on a full moon) and stay that way, but unfortunately, all this does is result in inconvenience for Hee-So. She has to hide him from her family, so they spend several days of her precious summer vacation hiding away in her room, eating noodles on a hot plate. She makes excuses to her friends, and bails on a couple of dates with Won-Jun. Poor Beatrice has gotten what he wished for, but he just feels like a burden, and eventually decides to relieve Hee-So of his presence.
Hee-So, in turn, realizes that the one who was truly dependent was her, and immediately launches out into the rain to search for Beatrice with little regard for her personal safety. One of the best things about this series is the dialogue that you’d never find anywhere else. Like this line, for example:
Once I find you, I’ll punch you in the face first, and then I’ll—I’ll get you some chicken.
Of course, there’s a little bit of romantic strife thrown in for good measure, as Hee-So is jealous of Won-Jun’s relationship with his friend Sae-Bom and Won-Jun is jealous of Hee-So’s interactions with magically inclined hottie, Whie-Young, but for the most part, this volume’s about a girl and her cactus.
MJ: You know I love this series, and I have to admit I totally ‘ship Hee-So with the cactus.
MICHELLE: I don’t think I actually ship Hee-So with anyone in particular, because each contender has his own unique baggage. I do love that she loves Beatrice so much that when he’s in peril or in pain, it drives any thought of dreamy romance right out of her head. And there’s a great panel, too, when she returns to her bedroom after having been unable to find him and realizes that, for the first time in eight years, she is all alone there.
KATE: We may be the only three women in North America who are eagerly anticipating volume 8! I smell a roundtable discussion here…
MJ: Yes, yes, we must convince them all! If a roundtable is what it takes, I’m up for it.
DAVID: Now I have to track down early volumes. If it makes the three of you this giddy, I feel positively foolish for waiting this long.
MJ: I think any series in which a talking cactus is a viable romantic option is a winner no matter how you look at it.
DAVID: And on that note, I’m letting the punch run its course. Welcome to the battle robot, Michelle, and thanks for the invitation to this week’s Off the Shelf!
KATE: Thanks for having us — y’all know how to host a great party!
MICHELLE: Thanks for coming! Can I be the green lion?
MJ: Today, Michelle, you can be anything you want. :)
And that’s a wrap!
Rij saysJune 2, 2011 at 10:57 am
All this praise makes me want to read 13th Boy. Now where to get the money and the time…
Estara saysJune 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm
A Lovely Installment. I wonder if David will now be sucked into the universe that consists of Card Captor Sakura, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle and XXXholic. Personally I stopped at Card Captor Sakura, manga and anime and have not felt that I missed out.
David Welsh saysJune 2, 2011 at 7:44 pm
It’s so funny that you mentioned that. When I first started trying to read xxxHOLic, I was SO put off by the barely explained crossover with the Tsubasa characters that I just set the book aside. This was when I was waning myself off of overly complicated super-hero continuity, and I was simply not prepared for “shared universe” manga. I mean to revisit xxxHOLic, but I don’t know about Tsubasa. It will depend on how intensely I end up liking the Cardcaptor crowd.
Logan saysJune 3, 2011 at 4:30 am
I’m so overjoyed to see how much you liked CCS, David — it’s one of my favorite manga of all time (right behind Nausicaa) and it’s the manga that got me really into the hobby, so it’s great to see one of my favorite manga bloggers come to like it. I like CLAMP a lot, but I don’t think any of their work I’ve read (and I’ll admit I won’t be reading X or Magic Knight Rayearth until the rereleases) lives up to CCS. I do think xxxHolic is a wonderful and melancholy little (mostly episodic) manga (and still enjoyable even without knowing the crossover bits, although towards volume 11 I think they come to play a pretty big role). And Tsubasa is a pretty good shounen (with some mind-blowing plot twists and crossovers), but if anything I think really liking the CCS characters makes Tsubasa a little bit harder to enjoy. I say that because the the Sakura and Syaoran in Tsubasa are NOT the ones you get to know and love in CCS. The Sakura who is so lovely, energetic and empowered in CCS spends a good portion of Tsubasa sleeping, fainting, and being carried around by one of the men traveling with her (for health reasons, but it’s still hard to see Sakura like that). However, the characters in Tsubasa who are not from CCS are, to me, fantastic — Fai and Kurogane are a super likable and memorable pair.
Also, Kate, I think you’ve finally convinced me to check out Neko Ramen (once my next paycheck comes in). Your description here sounds like so much fun. It’s too bad Tokyopop won’t be continuing with it, but atleast a 4koma shouldn’t leave any cliffhangers to need resolution.
Michelle Smith saysJune 3, 2011 at 8:33 am
I am going to be doing two agreements in this comment!
1) I agree that the Sakura and Syaoran in Tsubasa are different than their CCS counterparts (really, one should think of them as entirely different people from an alternate universe or something) and that Fai and Kurogane are both very awesome and the real reason to read the series.
2) I agree with Kate that Neko Ramen is a lot of fun, so hopefully that will help reinforce your convictions. :)
Logan saysJune 4, 2011 at 3:19 am
It must have reinforced my convictions because I just put in an Amazon order for the first 2 volumes! My shelves (and library holds) are brimming with manga I’ve yet to read, but I can’t stop myself from getting more…
Michelle Smith saysJune 4, 2011 at 11:21 am
Believe me, I know the feeling!
Jade saysJune 4, 2011 at 4:36 pm
I think I’ve pointed this out before, but Neko Ramen’s Sonichi was raised in New York until he was…thirteen or so and he counts Dilbert as one of his favorite comics which might explain a lot of how palatable his humor may be to an English-speaking audience. A Japanese friend and I once picked apart 4-koma and American strips. The major difference is that Japanese strips usually have that 4th wind-down panel that resets the state of the universe back to base or offers some context to the gag; American humor usually ends on a punchline and leaves out the denouement or added reaction. Neko Ramen and even Cromartie High both follow more of that American humor flow and leave you on that absurd high spot. It really lends the gags more of a bite-sized episodic flow.