MICHELLE: Hey, MJ! What did Geronimo say when he jumped out of an airplane?
MJ: Hm, I don’t know, what did he say?
MJ: I guess I should have seen that coming.
MICHELLE: Yeah, probably. So! What’ve you been reading this week?
MJ: My solo read this week was the debut volume of MiSun Kim’s Aron’s Absurd Armada, a Korean webtoon published in English by Yen Press. This series has been running since August of 2010 in the online incarnation of Yen Plus, and I checked out the first chapter for this column back when it debuted. Since it’s been quite a while, I’ll take a moment to refresh the premise.
Aron is a young nobleman and heir to a prominent dukedom with dreams of becoming a pirate. Thanks in part to his mother’s delusions regarding his intelligence and cunning (she believes he aspires to piracy in order to keep a rival family’s military influence in check), he is allowed to do so, accompanied by his pretty-boy bodyguard, Robin, whose reluctant participation hinges entirely upon his unapologetic greed. Though Aron is a fairly ridiculous pirate, random luck and Robin’s skills as a swordsman actually manage to win them a small crew, and the two embark on their journey to conquer the seven seas. Members of Aron’s ragtag crew include Ronnie, a young woman rescued from a shipwreck who is consistently mistaken for a man; Mercedes, a swanky transvestite who claims to be a hairdresser but is actually a deadly assassin; hulky Vincent, the world’s worst chef; and underlings Anton and Gilbert, whose primary function seems to be complaining and making jokes about other people’s sexuality.
True to its name, Aron’s Absurd Armada is devoted to humor rather than plot, and in this it largely succeeds. Though translating foreign comedy tends to err on the “miss” side of “hit-or-miss,” Kim’s sense of humor easily bridges cultural barriers—most of the time, at least. Only two or three jokes rely too heavily on Korean pop culture references to translate effectively in this first volume, which is a fairly good track record when compared to much of the Japanese 4-koma that’s been licensed for English-language release. In fact, the biggest cultural disconnect is the unfortunate volume of gay jokes that crop up, a large number of which originate in the series’ deliberate BL overtones. As a general rule, however, the series is genuinely funny, light, and satisfyingly whimsical.
Having originated as a webcomic, Absurd Armada is in full color, and Yen has thankfully preserved this in its print volumes as well. While, as a manga fan, I often find that full color comics result in sensory overload, in this case, color pages just enhance the series’ cartoonish feel, which is really quite effective. On top of that, both Kim’s comedic sense and her clear, expressive art style remind me of nothing more than Hiromu Arakawa’s omake strips for Fullmetal Alchemist, which, coming from me, is definitely a compliment.
MICHELLE: Since I generally don’t like consuming stories on a chapter-by-chapter basis, I’ve been waiting to read any of Aron’s Absurd Armada until it was finally collected, so I was very excited to see that a tangible copy is finally available. I’m kind of dubious about comedies a lot of the time, but this one sounds like it could be right up my alley.
MJ: I think it could be! Actually, I’d theorize that the best way to consume this series would be as a daily webcomic, one strip at a time, but it’s enjoyable in collected form as well.
So, what have you been reading this week?
MICHELLE: I’ve spent the last week catching up on Rinko Ueda’s Stepping on Roses in order to talk about its eighth volume, which came out early last month.
I knew going in that Stepping on Roses wasn’t going to be a masterpiece, but ye gods, is it ever dumb! The basic premise is that pauper Sumi Kitamura agrees to marry rich Soichiro Ashida in order to provide for the orphans her ne’er-do-well brother, Eisuke, keeps bringing home. Soichiro needs to be married in order to inherit his grandfather’s fortune, but schemes to have his friend Nozomu fall in love with Sumi with hopes of causing a scandal that’ll allow Soichiro to triumph in business somehow. He succeeds wildly, causing Nozomu to essentially go insane with his love for Sumi and become the series’ main antagonist. Meanwhile, Soichiro and Sumi fall in love for real. In volume eight, they’re living together in the slums until Soichiro gets ill and Sumi decides to yield to Nozomu’s aggressive courtship as a means to provide for her husband’s treatment. Misunderstandings, manual labor, and jumping from cliffs ensue. (Really.)
Being dumb doesn’t preclude Stepping on Roses from occasionally being entertaining. In particular, I’m fond of Soichiro’s manservant, Komai, and the best moment in the series so far is the super-short flashback side story in which he introduces his young charge to commoner cuisine in the form of riceballs. The series is also an extremely fast and easy read, with large, uncluttered panels and uncomplicated dialogue. Unfortunately, “uncomplicated” is pretty much the theme of the day. Despite the dramatic goings-on, the story lacks oomph and I find it hard to care about the characters. Sumi is mostly a passive heroine, and whenever she musters some gumption to do something about her plight, it’s usually something dangerous that requires one of the men in her life to rescue her. Soichiro is the classic misunderstood rich boy who’s never known love, and all of the villains are so obvious that they might as well be twirling mustaches. Speaking of obvious, the plot twist that will presumably be unveiled in the ninth and final volume was telegraphed so strongly in volume seven that it’s now just a matter of waiting for the pieces to fall into place.
That said, I undoubtedly will read the last volume to see how it all wraps up.
MJ: You are a lot more patient with this series than I have been. I gave up on it many volumes ago, for most of the reasons you mention here. Somehow it managed to eclipse my tolerance for brainless shoujo. I hadn’t realized that was possible, really, until Stepping on Roses. Though I have enjoyed Sean’s repeated wish that it would turn into a shogi manga. Sumi’s unexpected skill at shogi is pretty much all the series has going for it, in my view. Heh.
MICHELLE: I would much prefer it as a shogi manga!
Anyways, I think it’s your turn this time to introduce our tandem read!
MJ: Indeed it is! Our mutual read this week was the first two volumes of Crazy for You, a recent addition to the JManga catalogue from Karuho Shiina, best known in North America as the creator of Kimi ni Todoke.
Okay. So, Sachi is a shoujo everygirl—physically and intellectually unremarkable—whose best friend, Akemi, sets her up on a group date with a bunch of her boyfriend’s classmates. Though the boyfriend, Yuuhei, has been charged by Akemi with not letting any questionable guys latch on to inexperienced Sachi, he somehow lets known womanizer Yuki chat her up for the entire evening. Sachi predictably falls for Yuki and, despite Akemi’s alarmed disapproval, continues to pursue him even though she knows that most of what he says are lies. Thanks to Sachi’s sweet, guileless nature, she actually manages to befriend Yuki for real (to the dismay of both Akemi and Yuki’s more straightforward friend, Akahoshi), but their friendship’s unbalanced nature only spells doom for Sachi’s romantic heart. Just when Sachi begins to believe that her feelings might be returned, it becomes clear that Yuki harbors feelings for Akemi (and vice-versa), shattering relationships on all sides.
Though the typical love-triangle (or double-triangle?) setup and Sachi’s downright eagerness to be jerked around by Yuki becomes quickly wearying in the series’ early chapters, Shiina’s talent for exploring teen emotion eventually shines through. Early on, I’ll admit that my assessment of the series was pretty much, “not as good as We Were There,” to which it bears a number of similarities in terms of romantic setup, but Shiina adds some appealing touches later on.
First, I’m quite taken with the friendship between Sachi and Akemi, which (for once) is portrayed as being at least as important as their romantic aspirations—something Shiina perfected later in Kimi ni Todoke. Also, while Akahoshi could easily be set up as the ill-fated, stalwart “nice guy,” there’s actually quite a bit of doubt about just how “nice” he actually is, which makes his attachment to Sachi more interesting than tragic. Emotional complication is the real key to good romance, and there’s just enough here to make Crazy for You an engaging read.
MICHELLE: Nicely put! I was thinking that this really is the opposite of Stepping on Roses in terms of complicated versus uncomplicated!
Although I’m usually the first one to get riled up at female leads who don’t assert themselves, somehow I felt fairly tolerant of Sachi’s eagerness. Not the way she agrees to be duped, but how, even after Yuki and Akemi’s illicit smoochies shatter the group of friends, she still considers meeting Yuki—and experiencing a whole new world of love and heartbreak—the luckiest thing that’s happened to her. It’s almost as if she appears weak, but is actually strong, determined not to deny the love she feels, no matter what else is happening with other people. She’s glad that detached Yuki is able to feel love after all, and simply being capable of such an emotion herself is sustaining. If that makes sense.
And man, yes, the similarities with We Were There are pretty striking. Not so much the plot, but Yuki and Yano are so much alike they’re practically interchangeable. And the discoveries our heroine makes about their romantic pasts are rather similar, as well. I wonder if that’s part of why VIZ hasn’t licensed it.
MJ: Oh, you may have a point! One thing I’m glad of is that at least Akahoshi is not as straightforwardly awesome as Takeuchi, which I’m hoping means that I won’t have to be heartbroken over his inevitable rejection by Sachi. Heh.
MICHELLE: Yeah, he’s a really interesting character! Just another example of Shiina’s flair for developing her supporting characters in unexpected ways. Who could tell from the first couple of chapters that he would wind up being so important to the story? It’s hard to tell whether he genuinely wants Sachi to “save” him in a way, bestow upon him the faith she had for Yuki, or if this is another deliberate attempt to seduce a girl on his part. Is she a challenge? Does he genuinely like her?
MJ: In any case, I’m dying to find out! Which I guess means that I’m hooked.
MICHELLE: Me, too! Thanks again, JManga (and Shueisha)! I seriously was not getting far with my German editions and Google Translate! I hope we get more volumes of this (and Pride) in the near future.