Thursday, March 22, 2007

My secret shame

Well, it's more of a guilty pleasure, actually. Only not really guilty, just the cause of (imagined) strange looks when people think I'm reading Seventeen. That's right, I'm confessing/revealing/announcing to those who will probably judge me harshly: I have a subscription to Shojo Beat magazine. Okay, you probably don't really care. I just think it's funny for a nearly thirty-year-old guy to regularly read comics aimed at teenage girls. I had been sitting on this revelation for a while now, thinking maybe I could get a theme week out of it or something, but the most recent issue had some damn good comics that I wanted to talk about, so I figured what the hell, I'll just go for it.

But first, some background. I first got a subscription when the magazine launched in 2005. I was probably on a manga kick at the time, and I thought this would be cool, something my wife and I would enjoy together. Well, it didn't really work out that way (I don't think my wife has read any of the issues), but I still like reading it each month. I was actually considering not renewing my subscription, but a little math made me realize it's a good deal (a year is $35, which is less than the cost of four whole volumes of one series, with each volume only collecting 4-5 monthly chapters), and then this most recent issue got me more excited in some of the series that I had been losing interest in. So I think I'll end up renewing for at least one more year.

Oh, and I should give a description for those who don't know what the hell I'm talking about. Shojo (or shoujo, depending on the person) manga is geared toward teenage girls, and Shojo Beat is the American form of the monthly manga anthology magazines that come out in Japan. Each month, it prints a chapter each of six (or sometimes more) titles. I'll go through each of the titles and say what I think about them. I was considering reviewing titles that no longer run in the magazine, but I didn't especially like any of them, so screw it. I'll stick to the current version.

Yumekira Dream Shoppe
By Aqua Mizuto

This is the series that gets the cover image this month, and this month saw the first chapter. Apparently it's only four chapters long, so a new series will debut in a few months. That makes me glad, since, judging by this chapter, it doesn't exactly attract me. The premise has to do with a guy named Rin who runs the titular shop(pe), a floating store that stocks items which will grant people's wishes. Along with his anthropomorphic stuffed rabbit. In the first chapter, he meets a tree that wants to become human in order to thank a young, terminally-ill musician. Rin finds a way to turn the tree into a girl, and she falls in love with the musician, yada yada yada. Boring. I'm glad I only have to endure three more of these stories. On to the next selection!

Vampire Knight
ByMatsuri Hino

I'm getting the series I don't especially like out of the way first. This one is a weird, gothy high school drama about vampires. Yuki Cross and Zero Kiryu are guardians at Cross Academy, which has a student body divided into a "Day Class" and "Night Class". And wouldn't you know it, the Night Class is all vampires! I guess the academy is supposed to acclimate them to living among humans peacefully or something. As guardians, Yuki and Zero keep an eye on the vampires and make sure they don't kill any humans. Yuki's family was killed by a vampire when she was little, and then she was taken in by the headmaster of the academy, where she grew up alongside Zero. Whatever. I'm bored just describing this stuff. Anyway, the main plot of the series so far has dealt with the revelation that Zero was bitten by a vampire sometime in the past, and is turning into a vampire himself. We learn that he will eventually go crazy and turn into a blood-hungry monster, but Yuki convinces him to keep fighting and living rather than just kill himself. In a disturbing bit, she allows him to drink her blood in order to satisfy his hunger. Yikes. And there's plots about the heirarchy of the Night Class and vampire society, and so on. Not my cup of tea, but it probably does well among teenage goth chicks. Let's move on (after a sample of the art).

(Click to enlarge, and remember to read right-to-left).

Baby & Me
By Marimo Ragawa

This is the story of young Takuya, an eleven-year-old boy who is left to be the main caretaker for his younger brother Minoru when their mother dies in a car accident. It's a very cute series, especially the depiction of Minoru:

The first few chapters were pretty sad, with the boys still hurting from the loss of their mom. Then it seemed to segue into primarily comedy, with Takuya's classmates acting goofy and two younger girls fighting for Minoru's affections. It wasn't bad; fairly innocuous, really. There were a few weird chapters with a change in tone; one was a ghost story, and the other consisted of a dream of Minoru's in which he entered a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy world. This most recent chapter introduces what might be a new character, the delinquent son of their neighbors, who is staying with their family for now. He might be a new addition to the cast, or he might just stick around for a few chapters. Overall, it's a decent series, but I wouldn't be too sorry to see it replaced with something else.

A quick note before we move on: you'll notice that the pages here are monochromatic, but they are printed with colored ink. Originally, the comics in the magazine were all black and white, but after about a year, they began printing in color. Apparently, this is how manga anthologies in Japan are printed. It's a bit odd, in my opinion, but I don't really mind it. I would probably prefer black and white, but whatever.

Crimson Hero:
By Mitsuba Takanashi

Ah, now were getting to the series I like! This one is about a tomboyish girl named Nobara who loves to play volleyball. She transferred to Crimson Field High School at the beginning of the series because they were known for their volleyball program. Unfortunately, she soon found out that while the boys' program is going strong, the girls' program had been cancelled due to lack of participation. The first several chapters of the series detailed Nobara's work at recruiting new members to the team. Added drama came from the fact that she had basically run away from home, since she didn't want to work in her family's upscale traditional Japanese inn; she just wanted to play volleyball. So she has to deal with family pressure, and she ends up working as a "dorm mother" for a group of guys on the volleyball team in order to earn room and board. There are the expected romantic complications, as various characters compete for each other's affections, but the real drama comes from Nobara's passion for the sport. There have been some matches that were incredibly tense, sometimes lasting three or four chapters. And the characters are all very well realized; we can understand their feelings and motivations, both from the dialogue and the artwork, as Takanashi is very skilled at both facial expressions and body language.

The chapter this month is kind of a filler, as a storyline about the teams' trip to a training camp is reaching an end. We had some romantic complications and stuff like that, but now they're going back to school, and hopefully on to another exciting match.

Absolute Boyfriend:
By Yuu Watase

You might have heard of Watase from her fantasy series like Fushigi Yugi or Ceres: Celestial Legend. She also did a shojo comedy called Imadoki! (which is the only one I've read any of). Here, she gives us a sci-fi story (sort of). It's about a girl named Riiko who orders a "figure" off a website that sells "lovers". The figure shows up, and it turns out it's a robot that's pretty much meant to be a sex toy for women. It takes the form of a teenage boy, and Riiko wakes it up, imprinting it on her as her "boyfriend". She names it Night, and he ends up following her everywhere, including to school, and trying to be a loving boyfriend. It's pretty good comedy, as he has superhuman powers, but Riiko is always trying to keep them a secret. Since he's designed for sex, he's always stripping naked and trying to get Riiko to get it on with him, but being a teenage girl, she's horrified by the prospect. By the way, she lives by herself, since both her parents are always away on business, so Night can live with her without anybody knowing. Complicating matters is her next door neighbor Soshi, a childhood friend who has always watched over her. He has a crush on her, so eventually a love triangle develops. It's a really funny series, with lots of slapstick comedy (something Watase excels at). There have also been some pretty good cliffhangers, including one multi-chapter storyline in which another woman almost stole Night away from Riiko (he hadn't completely imprinted on her, since they need to have sex for that to happen, so when the other woman kissed him, he briefly became her boyfriend instead of Riiko's). I was starting to get tired of the series for a while, as nothing interesting had been happening, but this chapter was excellent, getting me interested again. It was the culmination of another multi-part story arc, in which Riiko meets a boy who claims to be someone she had a childhood crush on. He acts interested in her, at one point even seeming to drug and date rape her(!). However, it was revealed that he was another "figure" that was angling to take Night's place as her boyfriend. This chapter saw Night rushing to stop him so he could remain with Riiko. This led to a hilarious confrontation and fight scene:

So I'm back on board with the series, for now. Hopefully it will continue in this manner, with comedy or character development rather than remaining in a holding pattern.

By Ai Yazawa

And here's the real cream of the crop. This is an excellent series; in fact, I probably would have quit my subscription long ago if it wasn't for this one. It makes all the others worthwhile. The premise is this: two girls, both named Nana, share an apartment in Tokyo and deal with personal and romantic issues. That's about it. The good part is the excellent characterization; Yazawa has built a large cast, each with their own personality. It's great just to see them all interact. One of the Nanas is in a rock/punk band, so some drama comes from watching them struggle to try to attain success. Her boyfriend is also in a band, but his band hit the big time and became stars, so she has to deal with jealousy of his success and trying to cope with his fame. The other Nana, who has been nicknamed Hachi (after a famous Japanese dog; it makes sense in the comic), came to Tokyo to be with her boyfriend, but she ended up breaking up with him (I won't spoil it and reveal why), so now she's dealing with other romantic issues. She's also kind of flighty and has trouble holding down a job, which provides some more drama for her. It's great to watch this all play out, and Yazawa allows plenty of time to build the characters. Each Nana got her own chapter at the beginning of the series to establish her background; the two of them didn't end up moving in together until the fourth or fifth chapter. We also got to meet all their friends and see them interact; it's a blast just to watch these characters' lives. The current storyline is about Hachi's romantic troubles: she's sleeping with Takumi, the guitarist of Trapnest, Nana's boyfriend's band. She ended up with him as kind of a groupie, but she's worried she's falling in love with him without him reciprocating. Plus, she knows a member of Nana's band has feelings for her, but is having trouble tearing herself away from Takumi to try to get together with him. It's all very convoluted, but emotionally realistic. I'm really digging it, as I have been from the beginning. And the art! Yazawa's style is a bit different from the "standard" manga style, featuring skinny characters with long, thin limbs. She draws beautiful backgrounds, and outfits her characters with cool, lovingly-detailed fashions:

I didn't mention it, but there's lots of character-based humor, as you can see above. And some great layouts:

I love that page. Tons of emotion expressed in the space of a few silent panels.

This is another great silent moment, as Hachi's expression and posture reveal volumes. It's my current favorite comics panel.

It's a great series, and I really recommend picking up the collections.

Well, that's it for this issue. I could look at the other content, but it's more in line with the teen magazines that I hope people don't think I'm reading. There is a recurring feature in which Yuu Watase gives advice on drawing manga, and horoscopes with art by Junko Mizuno, but that's mostly incidental stuff. The comics are where it's at, and for the most part, they're worth reading.

UPDATE: If you liked this post, I've completed a follow-up, looking at the May issue of Shojo Beat.

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