Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Mushroom Girls in Love is a patriarchal hetero-normative oppressive travesty (Manga Review)

Mushroom Girls in Love sounded and looked like it might add some diversity to my yuri mix. If by diversity, we meant a poorly illustrated, even worse written, completely barren of emotion, no character development, and anti-humanistic, $13 waste of money, then yes, yes it did.

In case I wasn't clear, I didn't like it at all. I don't want to call it trash, because sometimes you need trashy fun. This was a jarringly sophomoric effort and I'm amazed it was picked up for an English translation given all the amazing manga out there that never has been.

The basic plot has us on a planet mostly covered with varying types of fungus and the sentient inhabitants are all women who are also fungus. They are divided into 24 nation-states with varying tribes within each. Each nation is ruled by a queen and royal family. There are varying classes of laborers in society as well as class-less, state-less nomadic traders who are on their own to survive.

Our story starts with the marriage of Arialla and Eriella (god help me if I didn't spell those right, because I'm not going upstairs to find the book to double check). One is a herder (of fungus cattle) and the other is a scribe. On the night of their wedding, they apparently have sex, or mate, or exchange spores, or something (I almost missed this intimacy because it consisted of one sentence in one panel that I only noticed after the next plot point when I went back to clarify). The next morning, they are shocked to find they are (sexually?) incompatible and Eriella has developed dry rot between her legs (seriously? I'm fairly sure this was written by a man if my internet sources are reliable, jeez dude!) and can no longer bear or make children by another woman.

Everyone in town wants them to get divorced because "what use is a woman if she can't bear you kids?" said people from another century and apparently also on this fungus planet. Arialla stands up and says she married for love and doesn't care. Then, with no real warning (other than like one other panel I almost missed because it involved Eriella as a child and I couldn't tell it was her) the 3rd princess of the royal family, who is also in love with Eriella, bribes Eriella's family to kidnap her, so that she can marry her instead. That kidnapping sets Arialla up on an adventure to save Eriella.

Before slogging through all the horrors of Mushroom Girls in Love, here's what was good about it: On a planet of all women (good) there were many ages represented from young to very old (good) and not everyone was drawn with a gorgeously perfect body and face (very good).  But that's it for positives.

Let's start with the world-view.  In several text expositions between chapters, the author seemingly justifies a class-based, forced labor, monarchical, nearly lawless society where some people are nation-less and excluded and people can get killed with no repercussions for their assailants because the world has had "general peace" and "evil" hasn't really ever taken firm root. Uh huh. Seriously, that justification is provided for the basic enslavement and lack of autonomy of an entire planet of people. This is no utopia, nor is the author pushing any philosophical moral system, but he actually seems to be advocating for a pretty controlling, anti-autonomy, anti-agency world-view. He then tries to sell that philosophy as being okay because most people aren't complaining and it could be worse. Yuck.

Most of the classes in society are illiterate. A person is unable to ascend out of their class based on talent or effort or desire (although it is implied that maybe marrying into a different class would give you an option - but even this isn't clear). So pretty much like a caste system. And there are the class-less nomads who, being deprived of the identity tags the other tribes wear, are never able to join a tribe or nation-state. Yes, everyone in society is tagged to identify their nation and class. Where have we seen this before? Additionally, the queen and princesses all have the ability to kill people with a touch in what is described as part of their divine mandate to rule the others and they can kill whomever they want for any reason and no one really objects.

From there we get to the gender politics of this world. How can there be gender politics in an all-female world you ask? Easy, when the guy who wrote this says the gods used to be male and female, those who give birth are called mommy's and the ones who impregnate mommy's are called daddy's (still not sure if this is by spore or something more fun?). So what does this tell our LGBTQ readers about their own lives? Does it mean that people who use surrogates and sperm donors aren't really moms and dads? Does it mean you can't have two moms if one actually bears you and the other doesn't? Does it mean he's not your dad if he was born genetically female but identifies as male? Dear author, the language you chose to use conveys and reifies a dominant hetero-normative world-view. We even get a line about how only dads and kids go to school (which if I read it right, indicates that the mothers do the work while the kids and dads get to learn). Ah! I paid for this?

So going down from the world-view to the broader narrative of the story, there are at least two deaths that attract no emotion from the characters and provoke little from the reader (outside of being stunned that their deaths were for naught). The first is when the queen kills someone who disagrees with her. The second is when Eriella's family, in disguise, kills the wrong person when they meant to kill their daughter's wife (how f*d up is this family?). Arialla drags this dead body into her house, and then the body disappears from the very next panel. No one cries for her, no one says "an innocent bystander was killed this is a tragedy and injustice", nothing, it just isn't apparently important to the author. And no one ever gets in trouble for killing an innocent person either. Awful.

We also have nearly every side-character from multiple tribes and classes accepting bribes to do anything. They have no moral compass. Bribe them enough and they'll kill their own daughter's wife. Bribe them enough and they'll go against their own princess. Bribe them enough and they'll help you escape. Bribe them wonder no one complains about the bigger society, they're all morally bankrupt anyway (fungus in the brain? Brain rot? Better than the crotch rot that starts this story off - I mean, seriously?) .

Oh yeah, and they have guns too, and iron, and some random giant animals that aren't made of fungus. And did I mention they have guns and use them to kill people? Lots of random. There are plot holes and "plot vouchers" like this everywhere. Eriella just happens to have made a bunch of fake passes while she was laid up sick in bed allowing Arialla to travel between borders for the rescue. How convenient. Then the other two princesses decided to help Arialla whom they've never met, why? Eventually we're told they like "justice and love" even though they also like regnal backstabbing, corruption, and using their people to accomplish their sick goals.

 Then, for no reason, out of no-where, although recovering from her rot, Eriella is ridiculed as being a "handicap." It's the most randomly unnecessary panel in the whole story. I don't know if this was the translator or the original author choosing this term, but seriously, let's just slight people with disabilities while we're also slighting progressive gender and sexual representation, slighting personal-autonomy, championing all-powerful monarchs, and...

Later, in another sign of the author's inability to extend even the tiniest bit of emotional realism into the story, Erialla tells Arialla not to hate the 3rd princess (who had ordered the kidnapping, resulting in deaths, and the eventual need for the leads to abandon their former lives and families). Why wouldn't Eriella want her wife to be mad at the princess again? Who knows, everything in this is so slapdash.

So getting down to the character level now, the story's problems become insurmountable. For most of the book, the leads aren't even in it! They literally have a few random panels where they do nothing, say almost nothing, barely interact, reveal nothing of their personalities, or contribute to the narrative. The vast majority of time in this work is spent on everyone else doing things like scheming, murdering, kidnapping, plotting, bribing and explaining (not well). it's only in the final third of the volume where one of our two leads does anything. And all that is just a poorly plotted, written, and drawn set of random action scenes. We aren't given any advance notice that Arialla even has competent fighting abilities even though she takes on multiple baddies at once. We simply know nothing of either of the lead character's personalities and the quick flash-back meet-cute in the beginning is hardly a satisfactory way of developing audience care for the characters.

The whole time I was reading this, I kept being reminded of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (I love the movie far more than the manga, but I have read and own the entire manga and it is still infinitely better than Mushroom Girls). It has a world being overtaken by fungus, nostalgic art, a strong female lead, strong political, humanistic, and moral values, and a long complex action story. Unlike Nausicaa, Mushroom Girls in Love has mediocre art, no real plot, no high-minded values, no character development or growth, no real meaningful exposition outside of paragraphs of text between chapters, and a strange value/moral system being promoted. I really wish it hadn't evoked the comparison because it debases Nausicaa, an all too frequently neglected icon (the character and the work).

Speaking more to the art, it has a strange juxtaposition between a 1970s-1980s indie comic vibe and the contemporary prototypical commercial manga-style. The lead characters are pretty much drawn in a cute current style while the rest retains an older aesthetic. There is very rudimentary use of screen tones and the line art is not very engaging. Just very amateur looking in its presentation.

As for yuri, I hesitate to call it that. I don't believe that every story involving two girls or women in love is yuri. I think to be yuri is to satisfy some core values of exploring the complex and intimate relationships (good and bad) between women. A story about two women that does not explore any emotional depth isn't yuri in my mind (I'd be eager to hear what people think about this). I think this is a hetero-normative, patriarchal story that features an all women planet more as a schtick or plot device than as any actual empowerment narrative for women and LGBTQ rights or meaningful exploration of female/feminine relationships. We get a single kiss, no emotional interaction between the characters to speak of, very out-dated gender politics and an oppressive class-based society that gets justified as being okay.

So before rating this steaming pile of money and time-wasting pulp, could the problems be the results of a poor translation rather than the author? I don't know because sadly I don't speak Japanese (yet, it's certainly a life goal) so I haven't read it in the original text (have you? Let me know!). So with that one caveat, I'm giving this story a 3/10, which may be the lowest rating I've given out yet on this blog. I'm seriously thinking of reselling this volume on ebay because I don't know that I want it in my house.

For an alternate review of it (in the original Japanese), head over to Okazu.

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