Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Shojo Beat: Do "sexy" and "good" go together?

Not-so-quickly: I don't know if I'm completely sold on Yoshihiro Tatsumi, but that's coming mostly from a position of ignorance.  Out of his books, I've only read Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and it didn't strike me as essential (in fact, I don't remember much from it, other than a guy having sex with a dog).  But he's got a reputation as a great creator of mature manga, so I feel that I should check out more of his stuff.  So, finally, the point: Drawn & Quarterly is releasing his autobiography, A Drifting Life, this year, and you can read an excerpt from it here, which includes a scene in which he meets Osamu Tezuka.  Now I'm really interested in reading more.

Okay, here's the real post:

Shojo Beat
February 2009

Maybe it's because I have a daughter of my own now, but the caption on the cover bugs me a little bit.  Or maybe it's just my religious upbringing coming to the surface, insisting that sex is dirty, and good girls want nothing to do with it.  Or maybe I'm just grasping desperately for something to say in this introductory paragraph, since there's little of non-manga content in this issue that interests me.  It's the annual music issue, so there's a bunch of content about J-pop and J-rock and other J-genres.  Not that I have anything against music from that side of the Pacific, but I can't even keep up the English-language scene these days.  I'm getting too old.  Okay, here's something that should cheer me up:

Fushigi Yugi
By Yuu Watase

I don't know if Viz doesn't have much in the way of upcoming shojo releases, because this month's preview chapter is for the VIZBIG edition of Yuu Watase's classic (by American standards) manga, and next month's is going to be Hot Gimmick.  But that's cool, because it's pretty good, and it's probably been long enough that a second generation of manga readers can be introduced to the series.  Me, for instance; I like what I've read of Watase's manga, but I have yet to read this one.  This chapter certainly makes it appealing, with a lot of her signature comedy antics.  The story is about schoolgirl Miaka, who is being pushed by her mom to go to a prestigious high school that is probably above her academic level, not to mention being a different school than the one all her friends are attending.  And in the midst of all the pressure, she discovers a magical book in the library that transports her to medieval Japan.  Does this represent an escape from the stresses and pressures of Japanese society through imagination?  I don't know, but the character work is compelling, even in this small sample, and it makes me want to read more.

Vampire Knight
By Matsuri Hino

Matsuri Hino loves to pile on the drama to a near-incapacitating level, and this chapter is no exception.  In fact, it's the opposite of an exception, going in the other direction to the point that the characters themselves are nearly incapacitated by the drama.  Nearly the entire chapter consists of a confrontation between Yuki, Zero, and Kaname, in which Yuki tries to get Kaname to give with whatever secrets about her past and the night her family was killed that he's been hiding.  But he hits her with the "don't you love me?" gambit, making sure to not break the precious equilibrium of the Yuki/Zero/Kaname love triangle.  It ends up being another example of the series propensity for showdowns in which characters face off with each other and issue threats without actually doing anything.  And amusingly, an note by editor Nancy Thistlethwaite in one of those sidebars castigates Yuki for being so insensitive as to bring Zero along as she discusses her love for Kaname.  That's just mean. 

So I dunno, the series is still enjoyable in its over-the-top drama, but actual action would always be preferred over these oh-so-angsty showdowns.  Not that I'm expecting much, but wishes can always be wished.

Honey and Clover
By Chica Umino

I always enjoy when Chica Umino basically tells off her characters by having more minor characters point out when they are acting ridiculously.  It's a nice way of undercutting the perpetual angst and drama that can plague shojo series, and acknowledging that realistic people don't act like this, at least not without making themselves and their loved ones very unhappy.  In this case, it's Yamada, who has been pining after Mayama for the whole series.  To spite him, she took off with Nomiya, an ex-coworker of Mayama's who has a reputation as something of a player, while not intending to do anything.  But Nomiya doesn't let her off the hook so easily, pointing out to her how selfish she is acting:

I love that Umino forces her characters to develop, not content to let them languish in their misery.  In fact, even Morita shows some actual humanity here, stepping up to keep Mayama from causing embarassment to Yamada more than she already has done to herself.  And then later he confronts Yamada about how she worried them.  It's like he's suddenly developed some maturity!  But it works, because since he has returned from his year-long absence in the U.S., he realizes how much his friends mean to him.  But don't worry, he still manages to be his goofy self every chance he gets:

And while this chapter is plenty dramatic, Umino doesn't spare the comedy, as in this scene when Yamada wakes up and remembers some of what transpired the night before:

This month is a darn good example of why this series is so good, and that's even when Umino is only focusing on half her cast.  She better keep it up; I love this manga.

Sand Chronicles
By Hinako Ashihara

And when it comes to good drama that continues to develop its characters and realistically examines the way relationships work, it doesn't get much better than Sand Chronicles.  Last month ended on a cliffhanger, as Ann informed Daigo that she wants to break up.  Now, we learn why, and what comes next.  It wasn't just cheap drama; she's gotten to the point where she feels that she's bringing Daigo down rather than lifting him up.  In one of the most heartbreaking moments, she talks about how she loved his bright smile:

And it's not just that she feels bad about him not smiling; she worries that he's going to fall as far as her mother and meet the same fate.  It speaks to an immaturity in her, since not everybody has to deal with the depression that her mom did, but it comes from a realistic place; that experience affected her so deeply that she is still recovering from it, several years later.  It's sad, but it feels real, and that's what matters.

Of course, she doesn't realize that breaking up with him will hurt him worse than staying together.  We jump forward in time six months and see how both Ann and Daigo are faring outside of the relationship.  Ann is stuck trying to figure out what she wants to do after high school, since she hadn't been considering a future without Daigo.  And Daigo is suffering from a similar problem, but out of a plan to try to better himself and win Ann back, he wants to go to a national university, which seems to be far beyond his academic abilities.  But he won't give up, because we learn that he wants to be a teacher, which his friends all think is hilarious, but seems perfect after we see how great he is with kids while playing some soccer.  It's a nice bit of characterization, and it makes for some interesting possibilities for upcoming stories.  Also interesting: the return of a character who was originally presented as a villain but has matured along with the rest of the cast; if Ann and Daigo have a chance of getting back together, she might add some interesting complications to the continuation of the relationship.

I like that this series continues to progress forward in time, rather than hanging in suspended animation forever.  After a good deal of time spent at age 16, it's on to a new era, and we get to see the next stage of Ann's continuing maturity.  I can't wait to see what's next.

Crimson Hero
By Mitsuba Takanashi

Last month, we got to boo and hiss at our heroes' opponents, Ayu Gakuin, as they tried to target Crimson Field's weak point and pick on a team member with an injury.  The chapter ended as Nobara challenged them, saying "Do you enjoy playing volleyball like this?"  As the Crimson girls work together to come up with a strategy that will allow them to protect their weaknesses, Aigaku starts to fall apart, with the mean Izumi particularly affected.  But a collapse for the opponents and easy win for the protagonists won't make for the best dramatic athletics, so they also manage to get it together, leading to a challenging bit of competition for both teams.  It's excellently done, on both sides of the court.  While I had expressed some reservations about the time spent on the characters from the opposing team, I see now that it was all to add to the effect, and it makes for especially effective drama.  As the chapter ends, both teams are pretty much at full strength, playing at the top of their game, and that's what great athletic drama is all about.  It shows some masterful piece-setting for next month's finale, which I fully expect to be awesome.

And of course, everything is made all the more effective by Takanashi's excellent sports action, which is full of deep digs and high-flying spikes:

I love it; she might not be Takehiko Inoue, but she can deliver the sports with the best of them.  Next month better not disappoint.

Honey Hunt
By Miki Aihara

And finally, we've got a great example of what makes this magazine so enjoyable to read each month.  The focus is on character, and while drama might be the name of the game for most (if not all) of the series, there's nothing better than seeing a character you like face difficult obstacles and resolve them through their own intelligence and spunk.  And that's exactly what happens with Yura this chapter, which is especially good to see, since she had previously seemed like she might suffer from the "doormat syndrome" that can sometimes plague shojo heroines (especially those in Miki Aihara's manga).  The cliffhanger last month involved the costume she was supposed to wear for a photo shoot being ruined, but she manages to come up with a great solution to the problem here, and steps up to exceed everyone's expectations.  And the continuing character development is really nice, as Haruka, Yura's combative costar (and the brother of her love interest, Q-ta) who had previously belittled her, is amazed at her sudden professionalism.  Aihara has definitely begun to turn this into a really interesting, enjoyable series, and I'm excited to see what's coming up.

And that's it for the month.  Thanks to Viz, who sent me a copy of the issue when I mentioned that I hadn't received my subscription copy in the mail.  Of course, the sub copy showed up about two days after the one they sent me, but I do appreciate the thought.  See you next month!

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