Monday, September 3, 2018

Nameless Asterism Volume 1 confused me and I don't know why (Manga Review)

Washio, Tsukasa, Kotooka
I'm a catching up on some series I should have started a while ago. Nameless Asterism Volume 1 by Kina Kobayashi and published by Seven Seas (quickly becoming a favorite publishing house of mine) first came out in February 2018 (so I'm about 7 months behind in reviewing it). From what I can tell, the total series runs 5 volumes, two have been published in English with volumes 3 and 4 available for pre-order on Amazon.

I felt the most amazing range of confused feelings reading this volume that I've probably ever felt reading a manga. I certainly didn't expect that, and I certainly don't think the mangaka tried to evoke that. Normally I have one of four reactions to something: love it, think it's okay, think it's awful, or it's just not my thing. I didn't have any of those at all. Instead, I got this strange soup of feelings. I was never comfortable reading it, just my mind roiling and unsettled for no obvious reason. I couldn't get a groove on. I'm going to try and unpack some of that in this review. God help us all.

As summaries go, there's not much to tell. The story focuses on Tsukasa, a first-year middle-schooler, which makes her around 12-years-old (I'll come back to this). She's in love with her friend Washio (love the name!). But Washio confesses that she's in love with their other friend Kotooka. See where this is guessed true Shakespearean fashion, we start getting hints that Kotooka is actually in love with Tsukasa.

The five chapters focus on setting up that love triangle and then move on to trying to hook Tsukasa up with a guy from another school who confesses to her. I secretly believe he is actually in love with Tsukasa's twin brother who goes to her school. Her brother, Subaru, likes to cross dress. At first, I wasn't real happy with how this was discussed by the characters, until I remembered that they're all 12 so they don't really have the vocabulary or life experiences, or personal understanding to have a more nuanced conversation about gender identity. It's presented that Subaru likes wearing cute clothes. Maybe that's all it is for now, maybe as he grows he'll sort through it with greater nuance. I just hope that he's given more depth and chance to explore his gender than he was so far before the series ends.

On it's surface, this should be a pretty good manga series for me. It's a yuri manga, with decent art (sometimes there is some really delicate beautiful line work - although the main work is more cute than realistic - I like the longer, more linear classical shoujo art personally - but no mistaking that Kobayashi-sensei has talent). It's also got a gender-non-conforming character. And it seems to be a story that won't have dedicated antagonists and unnecessary/unrealistic drama (kidnappings, mistaken identity, evil parents, etc...). All that is good. So why aren't I in love with this yet? Why did it make me feel restless as I read it?

Starting with their ages. They're in middle school. I have found that I just haven't been liking the middle school ones much. Particularly as they are 12-year-olds (right? Our 7th grade equivalent?). So rightfully, the depth of their speech and though-processes isn't great. That makes sense from a realism standpoint, but doesn't connect much with me. They don't know themselves well enough to do much more than harmlessly explore superficial feelings. That's normal in real life, but not terribly entertaining or enlightening for a reader. Although it can be, see Wandering Son for a more nuanced take on middle school.

The overall tone and story is only focused on "love." There isn't any time spent on genuine character development of any facet of their being outside of that. That's a bit boring to me. I think it's why I loved Fruits Basket, Twinkle Stars, Kimi Ni Todoke, Honey and Clover, Nana, etc... because although romance is in each, there is so much more depth to the main and side characters. Yet...I also like Milk Morinaga-sensei's works which are the complete opposite. Particularly Secret of the Princess, one of the most fluffy and inconsequential mangas I have read. Why does Nameless Asterism hit me differently? There is something about Milk Morinaga's work that is more unified in its vision. Her work somehow fully embraces its fluffiness to create a complete existence that is so clearly far removed from reality that we love it for the same reasons we might love Hello Kitty and unicorns (at least I do!). Nameless Asterism seems to straddle a line between that fully artistically and narratively cutesy-fluffy work (also, think Sakura Trick, another of my absolute favorites that is totally fluffy and unlike the serious stuff I normally love) and a more realistic, slice of life type story. Nameless Asterism was too much of one and not enough of the other and vice versa, like it couldn't commit.

What about the writing? Aside from the comments above and it's limited narrative scope and character development, it also didn't have any profoundly well written lines. I kept thinking back to Hatsu*Haru volumes 1 and 2 (which I reviewed recently) which had some really well crafted lines in an otherwise by-the-books high-school romance. I didn't get the sense that Nameless Asterism's author had that level of writer's voice. It was fine, there was nothing wrong, but it felt very perfunctory for the type of story it was presenting. That doesn't make it bad, but it doesn't make it revelatory. Just like when I read novels, I care much more about author's craft than the particular genre of the story. I love reading great writing. The writing in Nameless Asterism is fine, but unremarkable.

Basically, I kept wanting to like it, but: 1) the art is well done, but not my favorite style, 2) the plot is focused solely at this point on middle-school love without an overriding fluffy cuteness aesthetic nor the depth of character development of a good slice-of-life thus feeling stuck in the middle style-wise, 3) the writing itself is adequate but not enriching, and 4) I don't know that I can learn much or empathize much with 12-year-olds anymore. It was a tension between wanting to love it but just not loving it or connecting to it.

Maybe I'm just not the target audience? Either way, I kept feeling unfulfilled and even a little claustrophobic reading this volume. It was hard to read multiple chapters at a time, I just wasn't comfortable. I'm giving it barely 6/10 because it is perfectly fine, definitely nice, will appeal to many, but didn't stand out in the yuri genre at all. I'll keep reading at least another volume to see if it elevates itself over time. Either way, I also appreciate that we're getting so much more yuri translated into English. Now, if only I could get some more josei yuri - you know, actual adults leading real lives.


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