Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with MJ & Michelle! I’m joined, as always, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
MICHELLE: Once upon a time I worked for a circus and I lived in Omaha.
MJ: I’ve been to Omaha, if that counts for anything.
MICHELLE: That’s actually a lyric from the stage play version of The Wizard of Oz, which I was in in the sixth grade. For some reason, it gets stuck in my head all the time.
MJ: It serves as an interesting conversation-starter!
MICHELLE: I should try it at a party sometime. Anyway, I expect you’ve been doing some reading!
MJ: Indeed I have! I’ve had a pretty shoujo-tastic week, I have to say. Pretty snark-tastic, too, if I think about it, since both of the books I plan to discuss tonight feature wry humor in place of the usual wide-eyed shoujo optimism.
First on the docket, I’ve got the debut volume of The Secret Notes of Lady Kanoko by mangaka Ririko Tsujita, due out in a couple of weeks from TOKYOPOP. The series’ title refers to Kanoko, a third year junior high school student who prides herself on perfect objectivity. To maintain this emotional purity, she spurns any kind of social interaction with her classmates, preferring to simply observe (and, of course, take copious notes). When her interest is piqued by a classroom love triangle, Kanoko is shocked to find herself somehow drawn into the fray by each of the parties involved, and even more so to find herself accidentally befriending them.
My experience with this manga was a bit of a roller-coaster ride. I was immediately drawn in by Kanoko and the gloriously idiosyncratic friendships she develops against her will. Then, amidst a deep sigh of contentment, I was jerked right out of my shoujo-induced bliss by the volume’s second chapter, which begins with Kanoko having transferred to a new school, leaving everything I’d just learned to care about abruptly behind. My dissatisfaction continued through at least two more chapters before I finally realized that this is actually the premise of the series. That’s also when I realized that it’s brilliant.
Using Kanoko’s impossibly frequent school transfers as a structural conceit, Tsujita sets herself free from the bothersome constraints of reality, while also weaving in some of the most wonderfully real characterization I’ve seen in a manga comedy. It’s as though some sleep-deprived manga editor spliced together pages of Kimi ni Todoke with Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, absent-mindedly inventing a new and delicious flavor of shoujo satire that manages to consistently maintain the gag while telling an unexpectedly heartwarming story at the same time. And in a fantasy space like this, of course, Kanoko’s original, accidental friends are able to pop up as needed, to help our heroine learn and grow, even as she snarks her way through another anonymous middle school.
The real secret to the story’s success, however, is Kanoko herself. She’s smart, hilarious, and even kind of heroic, like a super-hero version of Harriet the Spy. She wards off bullies by genuinely not caring what they think of her, and blows off “friendly” saboteurs with little more than a sneer. I seriously wanted to applaud several times during the first chapter alone. She’s also deeply damaged and a complete mess, but even that’s not overplayed. It’s astonishingly well done.
MICHELLE: That truly sounds awesome. I, too, was unaware of the series’ structure, but had managed to pick up somewhere or other that Kanoko is a unique heroine, which is why I’ve been looking forward to this volume’s release. I note from the exterior of the book that TOKYOPOP has a new logo and it looks quite snazzy. Were any differences apparent on the inside of the book?
MJ: I didn’t notice anything new inside, other than this very pleasant sight on the book’s page of credits, “Editor – Asako Suzuki.” :)
You know, the thought I had as I was writing this, Michelle, was that this ability to mix satire with an actual, forward-moving story is what I’ve fruitlessly hoped for from Otomen all this time.
MICHELLE: Oh, that is a welcome sight indeed! And yeah, I’m beginning to see more disappointment with Otomen‘s lack of forward movement popping up online. I usually buy new volumes as they come out, but after the disappointment I mentioned when I discussed volumes six and seven here back in September, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy volume eight.
MJ: So now that I’ve blathered on, what have you got for us tonight?
MICHELLE: Back in the waning days of Manga Recon there was this review copy for Angel Diary volume ten that no one had claimed, so I ended up reviewing it. And, actually, it was pretty interesting. It was primarily a fight between siblings, and though it didn’t make me want to read the series from the beginning, it at least made me want to see what happened next. Well, I’ve now read volumes eleven through thirteen (the final volume) and, unfortunately, what happens next is really not too much.
Briefly, the premise of the story is that Dong-Young, the Princess of Heaven, has fled an arranged marriage with the King of Hell and come to Earth disguised as a boy. Of course, one of her classmates is Bi-Wal, the King of Hell, and they end up falling in love. In volume eleven, there’s some brief resolution to the battle between Bi-Wal and his brother, Ryung, and then Dong-Young decides to get serious about becoming the Queen of Heaven which means going home and devoting herself to studying.
At first I thought, “Oh, this is the Boys Over Flowers school of story conclusions, with one member of a couple going away for an extended period of time.” With two volumes left at this point, I expected there would be several chapters, at least, of Dong-Young hard at work and maybe even the pair waiting quite a while to finally get married. Alas, much of this period is skimmed over and the series ends shortly into volume twelve. The rest of this volume and the whole of the thirteenth are bonus chapters about supporting characters, frequently as big-eyed bratty kids.
I didn’t like or follow this series enough to feel disappointed by this ending, but it certainly lacks substance. I’m glad I wasn’t more invested otherwise I might have been annoyed. I will say, though, that I associate this series with Moon Boy a lot, since they both began with Ice Kunion around the same time and are now wrapping up in the same month, and between the two series, this one is superior. Everything makes sense and Kara’s art is frequently nice to look upon. In fact, I must confess that I felt some squee for Bi-Wal’s chief aide, Hee-Young, mostly because he has really cool hair.
MJ: Is “superior to Moon Boy” really much of a recommendation? :D
MICHELLE: I guess not. If one were in the mood for some utter fluff with pretty boys in it, though, Angel Diary would probably be a decent choice.
MJ: I’m a fan of Kara’s artwork in another Yen Press series, Legend, so though I may snark, I can well imagine the appeal of her very pretty men and their undeniably cool hair.
MICHELLE: I actually scored the first few volumes of Legend recently, and look forward to checking it out.
So, what’s your other wry shoujo read for this week?
MJ: My second shoujo-snark-tastic selection for the evening is the third volume of Kaneyoshi Izumi’s Seiho Boys’ High School, from Viz’s Shojo Beat imprint. Now, you’ll recall that the series’ second volume is what originally won me over, but I’d say that it’s the third that earned it a place in my recent holiday gift guide. And though, in part, this is because it simply maintained the second volume’s quality, it also has some particular merit of its own.
The volume starts a bit slowly, with townie Miyaji coerced into dressing up as a boy-dressing-up-as-a-girl to help Dorm 1 spice up their entry for the school’s play competition. Things move up quickly from there, however, with the introduction of a new love interest for our hero, Maki, and an unexpected development in Nogami’s flirtation with the school nurse.
As in the series’ previous volumes, what really makes this manga shine is Izumi’s honest treatment of her teenaged male characters, even within the context of a fairly light comedy. Though perhaps the more impressive achievement is her demonstrated ability to make a bunch of (mostly) heterosexual horndogs actually appealing to female readers. That Nogami, for instance, the most hideously crass of the bunch, is even remotely sympathetic as a character is an accomplishment indeed. She’s not above poking fun at her readership either, as she proves in the volume’s final chapter with the revelation that Maki’s new love interest is a dedicated fujoshi.
And though Maki is definitely the most average guy of the bunch, he’s also the one who consistently tugs at my heartstrings, whether he’s struggling with overcoming his continued attachment to his lost girlfriend or discovering that there’s more to a popular classmate than he’d previously thought. He’s a fragile sort of everyman, but it really works for this series.
MICHELLE: I’ve seen the girl-dressed-as-boy-dressed-as-girl plot before, as well as the school nurse (there’s one in the second book I plan to discuss tonight, actually) but it sounds like Izumi is able to make some tried-and-true shoujo ideas feel original.
MJ: Yes, she really does, and it’s by doing little more than playing them honestly. Though her terrific sense of humor certainly doesn’t hurt.
So, school nurses, eh? Bring ’em on!
MICHELLE: If your theme this week has been wry shoujo, then mine is “final volumes of light shoujo (or sunjeong).” I wasn’t too impressed with the first two volumes of Cactus’s Secret, in which prickly Miku expects the easygoing object of her affections, Fujioka, to pick up on her feelings despite the fact that she gets angry and yells at him all the time. The series has gradually improved, though, and the scene in the third volume where Fujioka finally admits/realizes that he likes Miku too is truly sweet. Shortly into the fourth and final volume, alas, a buxom new school nurse is introduced and I began to fear that a lame plot centering on Miku’s jealousy would soon unfold. And, in fact, that’s sort of what happens, but in a much better way than I’d anticipated.
Rather than be outraged because Fujioka is spending time with a physically beautiful lady, Miku is actually made insecure by the fact that Fujioka, whom she has pressured into considering his future, has apparently been able to discuss something with the nurse that he couldn’t share with her. It’s a classic case of opposites getting together and realizing, “Hey, we really are majorly different here!” Miku is very focused on her future, so the fact that Fujioka isn’t bothers her. Because she does care so much, he feels unable to reveal to her how clueless he is, lest he lose estimation in her eyes.
Finding the nurse a good confidante herself, Miku eventually realizes what Fujioka’s been feeling and the two end up working things out. Just like Angel Diary, this series ends pretty abruptly and is followed by a couple of bonus stories featuring supporting characters. Even so, I found the conflict in this volume to be engaging and honest, evolving organically from who these characters are. Cactus’s Secret doesn’t rank as one of my favorite shoujo series ever, but it just might deserve a Most Improved award based on the difference between its first and last volumes!
MJ: I wasn’t impressed by the first volume of this series, which kept me from continuing on, and now I’m torn by a desire to watch it improve and a desire to avoid being disappointed by an abrupt ending!
MICHELLE: I think it’s worth it, personally. The creator is also really young, so it’ll be interesting to see her develop, assuming her future endeavors are licensed here.
MJ: You make a compelling argument! I do tend to get attached to flawed works that show promise for their creators.
MICHELLE: Like Heaven’s Will?
MJ: That’s exactly the manga that sprang to mind! You know me too well, my friend.
MICHELLE: As my husband always says, “That’s my gig!”
MJ: So true.