Sunday, November 30, 2008

As surprising as it may seem, shojo manga doesn't automatically receive good reviews around here

Here's three volumes that I wasn't crazy about (although it should be noted that none of them are terrible or anything).  Find out why:

Captive Hearts, volume 1
By Matsuri Hino

Fans of Matsuri Hino's popular series Vampire Knight might be surprised at this series, since it's kind of goofy and silly, rather than dark and broody.  Actually, it does retain some of the angst, but it's more in the romantic comedy style of "I hope I don't do anything to screw up my relationship with this person", rather than the life-or-death worries of the bloodsucker-based book.  No, this is an earlier series (Hino's first serialized manga, in fact), and it goes for the comedy, in that weird Japanese way that seems so odd to Americans, if only because it embraces the supernatural without any irony whatsoever.  

That paranormal aspect comes from a curse that has condemned members protagonist Megumi's bloodline to always be subservient to a rich family that one of his ancestors wronged at some point in the past.  He hasn't had a problem with it before his current college age because the family disappeared on a trip to China when he was young, and he and his father (who had been their butler) inherited their fortune.  Megumi was content to live the life of a lazy student, until word came that Suzuka, the teenage daughter of the rich family was discovered to be alive.  She was the only survivor of the accident that killed her parents, and she has been living in China with an adopted family ever since.  To make matters worse, the family curse kicks in once she appears, and not being used to it, Megumi finds himself compelled to call Suzuka "Princess", carry her in his arms, pamper her endlessly, and generally make a fool of himself whenever she's around.  But she's not very comfortable with all this, and he hates acting that way against his will, so hilarity ensues:

Yes, comedy is the name of the game here, although it sometimes gets overshadowed by the lovey-dovey stuff; that is, Megumi finds that Suzuka is a genuinely nice person who doesn't like all the attention he gives her, and he quickly develops feelings for her beyond the involuntary urges he experiences (hmmm, does that make this an allegory for teenage hormones?  Probably not).  She also dedicates herself to finding a cure for his curse, and he tries to make the best of it, leading to lots of humor centered on embarrassing oneself in public (the Japanese love that stuff, since they are so reserved and polite).  There's also plenty of slapstick, which usually comes from Megumi's dad smacking him when he does something improper in front of Suzuka.

And so it goes, with occasional bits of romantic-comedy misunderstanding or drama caused by the curse.  It'll probably last a few more volumes until it all peters out and comes to a "now we can live happily ever after!" conclusion, but I think this is all I need to read.  I do wonder about the underlying psychology, however.  Is Megumi meant to satisfy a sort of female urge for someone to take care of them?  I'm sure girls would like somebody to wait on them hand and foot, but throw in a bit of real romantic longing underneath that, and it's like a perfect combination, right?  As a non-member of the target audience, it seems a bit calculated to me, but that might be distaste for the forced-submissiveness nature of the plot.  Hino probably just put together something that she would like to read; I can't help it if I'm not a teenage girl.

Two short stories round out the volume.  The first, "Real Storm", is about a girl in love with her teacher.  There's some wholesome material!  Actually, it wouldn't be a problem, except that the teacher seems to return the affection; even if it's not a full romantic relationship, the whole idea is kind of gross.  That subject does seem to be a little less taboo in Japan than in the United States; isn't there a similar plot in Cardcaptor Sakura?  Anyway, the story is all about learning to stand up for yourself and deal with the emotional changes that come with adolescence, so it's not all bad.  There's also an interesting bit about how it's hard for girls, since they mature faster than boys, but when boys catch up, they often kind of overcompensate and hurt girls.  Man, I'm not ready for my daughter to be a teenager, that's for sure.

The second short story is called "Let Time Freeze", and it's a simple bit about a girl who has fallen in love with her lifelong friend, and isn't ready for him to move away and go to college.  It works well enough for a short romantic piece.  So I guess the verdict for the volume is: not for me, but not bad either.  That's the problem with shojo; it's often quite removed from appeal, but when it's good, it can transcend genre and demographic limits and be something great.  Captive Hearts isn't one of those, but I wouldn't tell teenagers to avoid it.  Make of that what you will.

St. Dragon Girl, volume 1
By Natsumi Matsumoto

When the first chapter of this series ran as a preview in Shojo Beat, here's some of what I had to say about it:  "The huge eyes and severely pointed chins remind me of Arina Tanemura, and unfortunately, so does the occasionally hard-to-follow action."  After making my way through the entire first volume, I think that stands up, although the action gets easier t
o follow as the series progresses.  In case you missed that earlier review, the premise is this:  Momoka is from a family of martial artists, and her longtime friend/secret crush Ryuga's family uses magic to fight demons.  In order to protect his cousin Shunran from a serpent demon who decides to take her as his bride, Ryuga summons a super-powerful dragon spirit, but in one of those oh-so-wacky manga complications, it ends up entering Momoka instead of him.  So she has the power of this awesome spirit, but Ryuga can control it by sealing it off with his magic, so they have to work together to defeat the bad guy.  And there's your formula for future chapters: bad guy (demon or otherwise) surfaces, Momoka tries to fight him, Ryuga shows up at the last minute to unseal the dragon, the day is won, yay.  But actually, the main conflict of the series isn't really about who the bad guy of the week is, but rather the developing romance between Momoka and Ryuga.  She likes him, but he acts standoffish and derisive, often driving her to try to defeat the bad guys without him or thinking he doesn't care about her.  But he's just reluctant to show his feelings for her, and he always comes through in the end.

This series does seem to skew a bit younger than the other two mentioned in this post, and that view of romance shows it.  There's a lot of angry sentiments along the lines of "Fine!  I don't care about you either!" and lots of slapsticky punching of Ryuga when he's too much of a tease.  Oh, boys!  Will we ever be able to understand them?  Really, it's pretty enjoyable overall, with some fun action and clean, clear artwork.  But like everything else here, not really my cup of tea.  It's plenty appropriate for that middle school age range though (notwithstanding another plot about student/teacher romance.  That's not a theme I was expecting).

We Were There, volume 1
By Yuki Obata

Like all the volumes mentioned here, I originally experienced this manga when it was previewed in Shojo Beat.  This one was kind of short though; here's the gist of my review:  "...the briefness of this excerpt might actually work against it, making it seem bland.  So my mostly-uninformed recommendation is against it, unless I hear otherwise."  Well, now that I've read the whole first volume, I can say that it's not too terribly bland, and it might actually work pretty well as a character-based drama that develops over a long period of time.  The story involves a girl named Nanami and her relationship with a boy named Yano.  She's a high school freshman (or "first year", since this is the Japanese school system), and she ends up on the student council with him, but while he is popular with all the girls, he rubs her the wrong way, coming off as arrogant and obnoxious.  But soon enough, she finds herself taken with him, developing an attraction that he seems to reciprocate, at least partially.  Later, she finds out that his previous girlfriend was killed in a car accident, so she feels like she can't measure up to his dream girl that was taken away from him so awfully.  When she confesses her crush to him, he casually asks if she wants to go out with him, but she wants to know if he actually likes her, leading to this kind-of-sad scene:

But while that's unfortunate for her, it's also a good character moment; he honestly isn't sure if he likes her romantically, and he's not going to just lie to make her happy.  This throws a bit of a kink into their relationship, but they eventually work it out.  It's a pretty realistic depiction of a teenage friendship that might develop into something more.  I like that; by the end of this first volume, we're still seeing the beginning stages of their relationship, and it's nice to see a story that isn't just lapsing into cliched conflicts and misunderstandings.

But while this sounds like something right up my alley, I'm a bit put off by the fairly generic shojo art, which contains lots of toned patterns, shots of the sky, and close-ups of faces.  It's not unappealing, but it just kind of sits there on the page, with little to really keep interest focused.  And Nanami is kind of a boring protagonist, with little to really distinguish her from the other girls that get excited over Yano.  There's just not really enough of interest here to want to see where the story goes; if I was told this was the only volume of the series, I would have no problem if this was the end of the story.  Of course, your mileage may vary (it's always a good idea with shojo to remember that I'm quite a ways away from the target demographic); maybe this is right up the alley of drama-loving teenage girls.  But I'll be incredibly surprised if it becomes the next Fruits Basket, that's for sure.

These reviews were based on complimentary copies provided by the publisher.