Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Shojo Beat: Gimmick-ry and victory (and victimry?)

No links?  What kind of Warren Peace post is this?

Oh, what the hell; here's some Valentine's Day-themed Kate Beaton cartoons.  I think "The Curies" is my favorite.  I think I want that as a poster.

Shojo Beat
March 2009

Hey, it's the "green" issue!  That means crap about environmentalism and recycling and junk.  I've heard it all before, I expect.  I did like the page about earth-themed manga and anime: Mushishi, the Miyazaki movies Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, and an anime which I haven't heard of called Earth Maiden Arjuna.  Maybe I'll have to check that one out.

There's also an extensive Sand Chronicles section, similar to the Vampire Knight guide that the magazine did a few months ago.  Some of the features are just fluff, at least for a long-time reader like me, but a detailed synopsis of the story thus far would be good for new readers, and while I think the character relationship chart (which I still think I should claim credit for inspiring, with my 100 Bullets charts) isn't as necessary in a series that focuses mostly on three or four characters, it's a good introduction to the main and supporting casts.  But the most interesting bits are interviews with a Japanese series editor, and Hinako Ashihara herself.  Good reading.  Less essential is a guide to the symbolism of various elements of the series, but I do have to remember that the target audience of the magazine is teenagers, so I shouldn't complain when it doesn't cater specifically to my "mature" tastes.

Okay, on to the manga itself:

Hot Gimmick
By Miki Aihara

This month's preview chapter is another promo for an upcoming VIZBIG release of a popular series.  I'm a bit conflicted when talking about it, since it was one of the first manga series I read, and one that really got me interested in the medium.  It's been a while since I read it, but this first chapter reminds me why it was so compelling.  Miki Aihara is completely heartless when playing with her readers' emotions; her likeable heroine could enjoy gratifying up and crushing downs, with no warning as to which way things would go each chapter.  This creates such a gripping need to just see what will happen next, that you can't rest until you've read the next volume, and the next one, and so on.  Although, I lost that urge somewhere along the line, because I never finished reading the series (and maybe that would sour me on the series, because it's a notoriously unsatisfying ending), even though I own all the volumes; one of these days, I'll have to power through it for a marathon blogging session.

But anyway, in this first chapter, we meet Hatsumi, a put-upon high school girl whose family lives in company housing, which creates a terrible scrutiny on their activities.  If the boss's wife disapproves of them, her dad might get demoted or assigned to an awful traveling position.  And the drama really kicks in when Hatsumi's younger sister Akane thinks she might be pregnant, prompting a trip to a drugstore to buy a pregnancy test and the discovery of said test by the boss's bully of a son, who forces Hatsumi to be his "slave" in order to buy his silence.  So ridiculous (the moment when Akane confesses that "Sometimes I do it without protection, you know?" and can't remember how many guys she has slept with recently made me laugh out loud), but with just the right level of enhanced soap operatics to keep readers interested.  This isn't enriching material, but it's sure fun reading.  If you haven't read the series before, I recommend it, at least through volume seven or so, but keep the incredibly poor reception of that ending (which necessitated shrink wrap and a "Mature" rating for the final volume) in mind.

Sand Chronicles
By Hinako Ashihara

I'm impressed by how this series just keeps getting better and more mature.  Well, actually, it's kind of mature in hindsight, with this chapter focusing on the way teenage relationships seem so incredibly dramatic to their participants, but the passage of time can transform even the most painful heartbreak into a pleasant memory.  Both Ann and Daigo are hurting over their breakup, but they slowly begin to come out of their shells and learn to move on; it's not the end of the world.  And since the series is about how people change as time passes, we see that others can also grow.  Daigo might end up forming a new relationship with Ayumu, a classmate who has matured quite a bit since the last time we saw her.  And Ann can't seem to move on, sure that she will never love again, which prompts a lecture from Fuji:

There's also a nice moment between Ann and her father's (female) friend Kaede, and a brief scene that shows that Shika might be able to grow up and get over her angry, rebellious stage, much like Ayumu.  I'm sure the series will soon plunge into new and exciting directions, but this is a nice point to stop and reflect on the past, recognizing that while some things might have been painful, you've still got to keep moving on.  That's what I'll be doing, for as long as this series runs.

Honey and Clover
By Chica Umino

I'm not sure what to make of this series these days.  Is it past its prime?  Has Chica Umino run out of story ideas for the characters?  Or is this another example of a waiting period that comes before major developments?  Because there just doesn't seem to be much happening here in terms of character development, and that's too bad.  Morita is back among the cast, but even though he exhibits slightly more maturity than before, he's still just up to the usual goofy antics like being afraid of cockroaches.  Mayama and Yamada don't seem to be going anywhere, either relationship- or career-wise.  It's possible that some major developments are on their way for Takemoto, since he's having trouble finding a job or figuring out what to do with his life.  Hagu seems to have everything figured out: she wants to move to the countryside and live on a farm, occasionally showing her artwork at local galleries.  Unfortunately, there's not much dramatic potential there.  There is an interesting scene in which Morita complains to Professor Hanamoto that she isn't realizing her full potential; she could be a world-famous artist.  But Hanamoto doesn't want to push her to do that, when it would mean an unhappy life due to high expectations.  Or maybe she does want that, and she wants someone like Morita to push her to new artistic heights, rather than the comfort of her uncle?

Maybe this presages some interesting developments, but Umino seems to be treading water here, spending too much time on minor characters (somehow, Mayama's former coworkers have risen in prominence to almost the level of the main cast) and not allowing the major ones to progress.  Maybe she's trying to show their uncertainty, as they're in that precarious life position of accepting adult responsibility (see also: Solanin.  I just can't stop talking about that book), but I'm not finding it compelling.

Not that it's not enjoyable for what it is.  There's at least one scene that I found laugh-out-loud funny, in which the gang ends up helping out one of Ayu's neighbors, a baker who is running a Father's Day promotion in which he makes a bun that looks like kids' dad, if they bring in a photo.  Hagu and Morita end up getting in a battle to make the most realistic depiction, and the results had me cracking up:

On the other hand, I think I've had quite enough of the flamboyantly flaming former bosses of Mayama's (first seen here), who made a slightly amusing gag in one appearance, but keep popping up to mince about the page stereotypically, wearing women's clothing and saying things like "We started out as a single egg in mama's womb, and one we remain...".  Ugh.  Maybe it's a cultural thing that doesn't translate well, but I tire of gay humor like that rather quickly.

Still, this is a series that I really like, so I've obviously got a lot invested in its continuing goodness.  I don't want to see this devolve into a monthly set of pages with whiny characters and contrived comic relief.  Let's see some movement, something that makes me remember why these people feel so real and compelling!  Don't let me down, Umino!

Vampire Knight
By Matsuri Hino

I don't even know what to say about this series anymore.  Matsuri Hino's raison d'etre seems to be to continually hint at the illusion of development, without actually endangering the precious status quo.  Here, that means the hints that maybe Yuki's precious Kaname might actually be the vampire that slaughtered her family.  Could it be possible?  Of course not!  There's no way Hino would upset the Yuki/Zero/Kaname love triange that drives the angst of the series, so while the hint is out there, we're definitely not going to see a payoff (at least not one that confirms Kaname's villainy) anytime soon.  But we should still expect plenty of dramatic confrontations that don't actually lead anywhere.  I expect that all this will soon be sidelined by an encroaching plot involving a villainous nobleman who has possessed his son's body and is coming to attack Kaname, or something.  That will provide enough action-ish drama for a few chapters to distract from the ongoing mope-fest, but it will be back in full swing before long.

Honey Hunt
By Miki Aihara

Sometimes words or phrases that sound good in Japanese don't really work when translated into English, and Honey Hunt seems to be on the forefront of unfortunate localization.  Not only is Yuki's main love interest's band named Assha (which is the Japanese pronunciation of the band's actual name, H.A.), but now it's revealed that the noodle-soup-shilling sitcom she's working on is called "Slurp!"  That's pretty funny.

As for the actual contents of the chapter, it's more of the typical drama in which Yura thinks she isn't good enough.  This time out, she becomes convinced that she must have only been hired because of her famous parents, and while it's obvious that her manager is pushing this issue to the fore to get her to move past it, it's annoying to watch her angst about whether she's good enough to stand on her own.  The nice thing about the series is that this isn't too unrealistic, and we've seen that Yura does have talent beyond her name.  Sometimes the low points are necessary in order to make the eventual success that much more enjoyable.

Also interesting: the fact that Yura is falling into the sway of Q-ta, who has already shown that what interests him most about her is her father.  She has resisted his charms for that reason, but he seems to be trying to make up for it and develop a real relationship with her.  Will he turn out ot be a nice guy after all, or is he going to reveal a mercenary underside and crush her?  Knowing Aihara, I'm afraid it's the latter, but I've come to like Yura enough that I hope it's the former.  That's a demonstration of Aihara's skill at storytelling right there, isn't it?

Crimson Hero
By Mitsuba Takanashi

And so ends an excellent bit of sports action, in a manner that calls many real-life competitions to mind: abruptly.  Fiction can tend to draw out the drama in a competition to unrealistic ends, but Takanashi goes the surprising, and realistic, route here by having the game that has dominated recent chapters end suddenly, and using the moment to put the spotlight on a character that doesn't receive a lot of panel time.  As with much of this series, it's excellently done, demonstrating an emphasis on character in the midst of all the athletic drama.  

And so ends the most exciting bit of the series to date, but there's plenty of other threads to keep the interest high until the next game.  Is Tomoyo going to be able to recover from her knee injury, or is she out for good?  If she's done, how will the team be able to find a replacement in time?  Will Tomoyo's plight rekindle Haibuki's affection for her?  How will this Kaz fellow who seems to have his eye on Nobara muck up the works?  Can I get any more girly than I am already?  The fact that I'm genuinely interested in all these questions shows what a good storyteller Takanashi is, and I'm excited for the next issue to show up so I can see what happens next.

And that's all she wrote for the month.  As always, next month can't get here soon enough.  I'll be plenty busy until then though; watch for lots of Monster reviews, coming soon!