Monday, October 29, 2018

Nameless Asterism vol. 3 mixes insincere drama with forced comedy (Manga Review)

Tsukasa, Washio, Kotooka
Nameless Asterism is a series with potential, but it can't quite land on a consistent tone. Volume 3 (published in the US by Seven Seas) only adds to the confusion. While not bad by any stretch, it's mostly spinning its wheels through this volume. Those who like the generally moe look of the art, who like cute stories and characters, who like implausible drama without any real stakes, and don't mind a slow pace will be fine. Those looking for some emotional realism and forward progress will be frustrated.

Volume 3 spends most of its time focusing on Subaru, the brother of main character Tsukasa, as he tries to convince another boy not to fall for his twin sister. The majority of the volume thus ignores our three heroines, Tsukasa, Washio, and Kotooka. That's too bad.

Sadly, Kobayashi-sensei is still heavily using Subaru's cross dressing more for comedy and forced misunderstandings than for any meaningful exploration of gender. This volume provides more background on why he cross-dresses and it isn't fulfilling or realistic in the least. I don't need everything to be realistic, but it should have some emotional resonance or rationale. I still find the use of cross-dressing to be a plot device here, not an authentic character trait, that's disappointing.

Further, I didn't want to spend most of the volume on the two male side characters when what I care about is the love triangle of our three female leads, but that's what this volume does. The highlight of the volume for me was seeing Kotooka realize that things can't stand as they are. However, despite one half-hearted attempt to talk to her friends, that doesn't go anywhere (yet?). It ends up being a full volume of nothing actually changing between the three.

I also can't decide if this series is a comedy, a drama, a romance, or some combination. The tone just hasn't settled in over the three volumes. There are funny moments, cute moments, dramatic feelings, looks of longing, but nothing that ties those together as a cohesive narrative voice. 

In other hands, the story of a love triangle, particularly one where A loves B, B loves C, and C loves A could be the source of rich melodrama and ultimate bittersweet endings: as at most, no more than two of the three can be together, if any at all. This is a story I would love to see explored with real emotional veracity. 

However here, I struggle to see how this series could end in a satisfactory way (satisfactory doesn't necessarily mean happy, just plausible and emotionally cohesive). The rapid mix of comedy and longing doesn't seem to suggest a way out that will have resonance. 

As I mentioned before, I'm really afraid the series will end with a non-resolution, like "oh, let's all just be friends" rather than someone actually being hurt. Even having all three realize that middle-school crushes are only that and each meeting someone else in high-school or adulthood would be more realistic. But the comedic undertones suggest it won't be that thoughtful and instead we won't get the bittersweet, or painful, ending we and the characters deserve. However, hope springs eternal and maybe Kobayashi-sensei has something poignant in mind.

The art continues in fairly typical moe-ish style with pretty minimal backgrounds and serviceable, if not exactly my style character designs. I just wasn't thrilled with this volume's lack of plot development and even less happy with its continuing use of a gender non-conforming character as an inauthentic plot device. Subaru is not the mirror for trans/gender-non-conforming people that readers deserve. Haven't we moved beyond using cross-dressing as a plot device to create hijinks? 

I'm giving this a barely 6/10 because its mostly inoffensive and for those who like the overall style of art and story, it'll be fine, but it's just sort of doing its thing passively.


Friday, October 26, 2018

Bloom into You volume 5 is boring and forced (Manga Review)

Touko and Yuu
I LOVED Bloom Into You Volume 4 so I was really excited to see if the character development and writing quality carried over into Volume 5 (published by Seven Seas). Sadly, volume 5 felt like it was treading water (literally) to fill some time, plus some of Touko's internal dialogue felt very forced.

We left the end of Volume 4 with the student council finishing their summer play practice retreat and Yuu and Touko trying to really connect with each other with Yuu also getting a better understanding of Touko's psychology and being concerned by it. Volume 5 picks up with some rewriting of the play and continues into a date between Touko and Yuu before finally getting back into school and final preparations for the play (which ostensibly will be Volume 6).

First, this volume has so much time devoted to a minor side character but that side character hasn't been developed enough to warrant our attention, and nothing here changes that. So I consider that time lost. Sayaka, however, is a side character who is intriguing and central to the story and yet she goes underutilized in this volume. It's a strange (im)balance.

The date between Yuu and Touko, which could be a highlight, ends up being boring and perfunctory. It's a waste of space with little dialogue, less character growth or realization, and no real developments in their relationship. Nothing actually happens on the date. It really felt like meaningless filler. Given how many things could have happened to bring up interesting reflections and conversations between them, this was a missed opportunity. Oh, BTW, they go to the aquarium. They see some fish. That's it for plot pretty much.

In the final chapters, the revised script, one influenced by Yuu wanting to push Touko towards self-realization, is finally introduced. Through this, we get some internal dialogue from Touko and instead of it feeling either 1) like she's really doing some deep reflection or 2) that she's spiraling down, we instead get a strange middle ground where it feels like she's telling us things we already know in a very expository way. Not strong writing and it feels forced. I'm not feeling as hopeful that this is going anywhere as I was after volume 4. I also still don't believe the underlying psychology of Touko's desire to "be" her sister. There's a contrived aspect to it.

At the end, without spoiling, there is yet more proof that Yuu is an exceptionally written character with a consistent and meaningful internal psychology. It's moments like this that make me wish Nio-sensei could maintain this skill in the rest of her writing. But overall, we had to go through 5 1/2 pretty meaningless chapters to get one really good scene.

Each volume of this series has been inconsistent, and the series itself has been inconsistent. So while I loved volume 4, I felt volume 5 was pretty much a waste. It's not bad, but it's not anything to write home about. 6/10 for blandness.


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Violet Evergarden Won Me Over Despite Its Flaws (Anime Review)

Violet Evergarden

I took a flyer on Violet Evergarden (streaming on Netflix) as it is not the typical genre of anime I watch. Usually I go for the shoujo romances, slice of life, josei, and other fairly realistic fare. However, I heard good things, the animation looked good, and no commercials on Netflix were all things in its favor. But it was definitely out of my norm to watch a near-history/fantasy anime.

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised. That said, there are some caveats. The biggest: is it possible to enjoy a show even though a critical lens reveals some significant issues? I think "yes," so long as one is informed and retains the critical understanding and acknowledges that their enjoyment is predicating on supporting a show that does reinforce certain dominant norms. Heavy, I know.

Violet Evergarden takes place in a vaguely 1930's-like time period in a vaguely European continent whose various countries are at war with each other. Violet is a young girl, trained as a killing machine, deprived of all human contact, education, warmth, and humanity. She is placed under the charge of an army Major. Ultimately in battle, she loses her arms and he loses his life. We meet her in the hospital, recovering, and getting used to mechanical prosthetic arms. She is met by a former commander and offered to take up residence in the household of the Major's friends.

She rejects this and ends up employed to the former commander and working in his postal company. There she learns of the Auto Memory Dolls (Dolls for short) who scribe and type letters for the people who seem unable to write (but all of whom seem able to read...). Despite her seemingly cold, emotionless heart, her affect-less personality, and dark past, she is drawn to the work of the dolls. When asked why, she explains that she wants to know what the Major meant when he told her that he loved her. The episodes consist of Violet writing letters for people, learning to understand her own emotions, coming to terms with her bloody past, and grieving for the Major.

The show is beautifully animated. Crisp, clear, detailed backgrounds, intricate character designs, fluid motion, easy to follow editing. In short, a very high level of art and production for an episodic show. Despite many flaws as we will discuss, we ultimately come to identify with the main character and truly empathize with her. Also, her emotional growth proves believable. When she cries, we cry. It's hard not to like a show with a winning lead and beautiful art, even with some concerning narrative choices.

My major concern with the show rests on its largely male perspective of women's emotions. Despite having a strong female lead with eventual agency (although she had none at the start of her life), her sole journey is about understanding a man's love. She is completely devoted to the memory of her lost Major and has seemingly no other purpose in life. However, without spoiling anything, the last few lines of the last episode do resolve that tension to a degree.

Men are clearly the leaders in this society. The few working women we meet are all the Auto Memory Dolls, referred to as "dolls" throughout - not exactly an enlightened label. There are no male dolls. We see one university, all the students are males. Many, but not all, the customers are men who struggle to put their words into feelings on paper and need a "doll" to help them.

Further, Violet is indicated to be between 14 and 15 despite looking like a young adult in her early twenties. There is also an episode with a princess who is also 14, looks younger, and gets married (with an initial betrothal party at age 10). So basically, some young girl fetishism.

One can imagine the premise for this show developed in some mans head: "what if we had a show about a dangerous fighting teenage beauty with blond hair and steam punk robot arms...what should she do...oh, I know...she quests to find the man she loves!" All that was left was to figure out why she has no arms (a very improbable set of battlefield injuries that wouldn't lead to arms literally falling off - oh well, details...).

But if we can both acknowledge that very male perspective and put it aside, there are certainly other problems with the writing. It is a society with cars and planes but no telephones or electricity to speak of. Also, why is she the only one with advanced steampunk robotic prosthesis following a brutal war, shouldn't many other soldiers have been maimed and need them?

Most of the episodes seem contrived to lead her through parts of her emotional journey and the need for a hired letter writer seems pretty frivolous - especially since most of the clients are very educated, wealthy, and have staff who could do it for them (princess, published author, etc..). The purpose of each episode is to give her something that explicitly teaches her some lesson, they are obvious setups with only blatant pathos as their point.

So can we put aside the obvious male needs driving this show and the narrative flaws and still enjoy it? I found that I could because I did end up genuinely caring about Violet. She is very endearing, very sincere, and very earnest. It tugged at my heart strings. But I need to acknowledge that I enjoyed it despite the fact that it was reifying of traditional values and male dominance over women. Even the simple fact that a female child was raised as a killer and given to the military as a weapon and her humanity devalued supports that male-centric world-view.

Put simply, through a critical lens, this show was quite problematic. But it was also beautiful and emotional, things that shouldn't be disregarded to support throwing away the whole show (if we took that approach we'd also lose most of the western literary canon!).

So Violet Evergarden was very flawed, but also enjoyable for what it was. I'm giving it a 7/10 with those heavy caveats. Please go in aware of its flaws and I hope you find something redeeming in it like I did.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Bloom into You volume 4 is the best yet (Manga Review)

Sayaka, Touko, and Yuu
I've been pretty luke-warm on Bloom into You (by Nakatani Nio and published by Seven Seas) up to this point, tantalized by certain aspects (is Yuu aromantic, will the story stay true to that?) but also finding it somewhat slow and typical at the same time. Volume 4 started off similarly, and I was really thinking it was mostly filler, but boy howdy did the last few chapters end strong (especially the last one)! So strong in fact that I think it is my favorite volume of the series so far.

Yuu, Touko, and the rest of the student council get the script for the play they will perform. Touko, still earnestly trying to fulfill her dead-sister's goal of seeing the student council put on a play, is cast as the lead. The group heads off to a retreat to rehearse and that's when Touko meets a man who knew her sister, describing her completely differently than Touko knew her, and casting everything Touko thought she understood into doubt.

What made this volume special is that we got some serious understanding of Touko and Yuu's psychology. Touko is not only living in her sister's shadow, but has a serious mixture of idol worship and a personal inferiority complex. It's that inferiority complex that ends up being significantly impactful to Yuu at the end of the volume, and leading to an interestingly hidden word in an internal thought by Yuu (Nio-sensei, what are you hinting at?).

Yuu on the other hand is starting to find a balance in what she wants from Touko. She clearly enjoys the companionship as well as the physicality of their relationship. She also doesn't fret as much in this volume about whether it's okay to not be in love with Touko. Yuu is starting to really show that Touko is somebody in her life, her friend even comments that its one of the first time's that Yuu has ever  seemed to care one way or another about anything. I loved seeing Yuu enjoying what she enjoys and not worrying about something she is not (and also confidently asking for what she wants from Touko). In some ways, this is almost the opposite of how Touko is being exposed in these chapters.

What will be fascinating as the series progresses, is that while Yuu may get her needs met (companionship and physical intimacy) by Touko, will that continue to be enough to satisfy Touko who seems, more now than ever, to need to be loved in a way Yuu doesn't. I truly hope the story continues to be honest about the narrative of someone who is aromantic and does not take the cliched (and dishonest) way out and eventually have Yuu fall in romantic love with Touko. We need more narratives of diverse people and there is woefully little media focusing on aromantic lead characters.

I also hope that Nio-sensei will let Touko continue down the rabbit hole of self-hatred as she deals with the realization that the seemingly perfect sister she was in love with and basing her life on was actually an imperfect person like everyone else out there. Now that Touko doesn't have this idol to emulate, how will she break down and then build herself up as a unique individual? Yuu seems to be drawn to the real Touko that Touko so despises setting up a crucial dynamic. But I don't want a simple payoff, I hope that Touko's journey is done with the requisite complexity to make it feel authentic.

With my worries set to one side, this volume proved Nio-sensei's ability. Although I have no idea what Nio-sensei is planning in the long-run, if this volume is any indication, she has another level of writerly quality at her disposal and I hope future volumes are this good! There was also my favorite kissing scene so far this year, involving popsicles no less! I'm giving this volume an 8/10 for character honesty, a great kissing scene, and some nice developments emotionally. I hope the series continues at this quality level.


Monday, October 15, 2018

Asobi Asobase is NOT your typical middle-school slice of life, thank god! (Anime Review)

Olivia, Hanako and Kasumi
If done well, I'm a fan of the cute girls-doing cute things-cutely genre of anime. If done poorly, I stop watching after 2 episodes. Which would Asobi Asobase be? Turns out, neither! 

If judging from the opening theme song, one would assume that it features three middle-school girls who form a club to explore different hobbies and "pastimes" as they call them. In that opening theme song they look angelic, dressed in white, blushing at each other in a meadow of flowers before falling asleep on each others shoulders under a chalk board. Ah, the innocence of youth...

WRONG! Middle school girls are gross, scary, insane, occasionally mean, weird, and a whole host of other things (mine just started 9th grade thankfully!). Asobi Asobase gets that - boy howdy does it get that. It is a show about what it is really like to be in a middle-school girl's head. In some senses, you could call this a comedy horror series rather than a slice-of-life. 

It is definitely one of the funniest anime shows I have ever seen, ever. I would routinely be laughing out loud (while wearing headphones naturally) so my family was constantly turning to me and asking "what?" I rarely laugh out loud, so that's a big win for this show. 

By way of "plot," the show centers around Olivia, who looks foreign but was born in Japan, speaks Japanese natively, but pretends to speak English as her primary language (which she can't actually speak at all). Hanako is her first friend and the ultimate ring leader of their strange club. She's also certifiably insane in true middle-school fashion. Kasumi looks like she'd be the brains of the bunch, but actually isn't a great student and is more interested in writing BL stories while also being completely terrified of real men. 

As a result of various things of no real significance (other than that they aren't really very popular in school), they form the "pastimers" club which they think focuses on playing various games and traditional hobbies and which others think is a club to study old men who gawk at women (I think). Each episode consists of a few short segments of them engaging in some game or hobby that goes horribly awry due to their own insanity, weirdness, or cruelty as the case requires.

They are mean to each other, pranking each other constantly, vengeful and boastful, gross, and naive. Some of the funniest moments come from their misunderstandings about sex and how it works, especially Hanako. Hanako is fascinating as she comes from a rich family, is somewhat naive, but a hard worker, infatuated with her own perceived amazingness but also completely unpopular in actuality, dependent on her butler/nanny Maeda while also torturing him. She's the pulse that drives the show.

This is what the show is really like!

And let me be clear, this is a show that in several episodes references that fact that Maeda (the butler/nanny) was at some point abducted by aliens and had an alien laser implanted in his ass hole and that when he isn't careful, he accidentally shoots laser beams out his butt. And the show pulls that off effortlessly (Laser Shogi anyone?).

I think the other recurring element that really worked for me was the constant references to how Olivia's armpits smell. This comes up at several points and what's awesome about it is that Olivia has the classic blond hair, blue eyed perfect looks of a western-style anime heroine...but her armpits smell! Just like every other middle-schooler in the world. And the show spends time on it, in varying ways across the series. It does the same gentle humor with all sorts of other things that actually are on middle-schooler's minds. 

I won't bother to get into any details from the individual episodes, as they are short and funny and all over the place. But if you like absurdist comedy based in a slice of life format, then this is your show. 

My only real reservation about the show comes from a side character who is believed to be a boy dressing as a girl attending their all girl's school. She's in several episodes and isn't presented as trans, but instead really given a "wolf in sheeps clothing" cross-dresser persona. There's a trickster/malevolence to her role which comes across as transphobic. This is made more so by the girls' attempts to see whether she has a penis, as well as the character's own scheming around the school. It was just one step too far, as the rest of the show gained its humor from absurdity by the main characters, or harmlessly silly side characters, but this is the one character where the humor actually perpetuated harmful stereotypes about a classically marginalized group.

Contrast that with a scene between the student-council vice president and her boyfriend. In the wrong hands, this scene could perpetuate terrible stereotypes about girls being required to wear makeup and look nice for boys, but here its carried so far as to actually demythify that (as does another episode where Hanako tries makeup with Olivia). In the scene, the student council vice-president doesn't have all her elaborate makeup on. She is seen with only one side done by her boyfriend who shrieks in horror. The vice president then knees him so hard others think he's a corpse for the rest of the episode and plot how to dispose of his body. The whole thing is so perfectly delicately balanced because her makeup is so overdone, no one would believe it is something to aim for, and the boy's shock so overplayed as to be clearly satire. In fact, the show is probably targeted towards an adult demographic who will really appreciate the humor now that they're safely removed from that age.

The art goes between traditional anime to horribly deformed frightful images of the girls faces and is not afraid to show the girls as a lot less cute than other shows might. The art perfectly supports the insanity and the reality of middle school girls' both feeling like, and being, outcasts from the world, their own bodies, and their own minds. 

Had the show not had the transphobic moments with the side character, it would have been rated higher by me. But even with that big caveat, it was so genuinely funny throughout, I'm giving it a 7/10. It was a great change of pace to see middle-school girls presented as the little freaks we know they all are and not as lolitas to be sexualized or as angelically cute bon-bons of perfection.


Friday, October 12, 2018

Ao Haru Ride vol. 1 is a modern classic (Manga Review)

Futaba and Kou
Ao Haru Ride volume 1 was probably my most anticipated release of 2018. By Io Sakisaka and published by Shojo Beat/Viz, I first learned about it through its incredible namesake anime. Not only was I excited for the source material, but I'm excited to see where the story goes after the anime left off. Volume 1 did not disappoint.

The story is nearly beat-for-beat what we got in the anime. While the anime is very well drawn, the art here is exceptional. The expressiveness of characters, the uniqueness of each of their designs, the attention to detail, the complex use of screen tones, the mature and realistic style all work to support an emotionally nuanced story with a very likable but never perfect lead heroine.

Our story starts in middle school where Futaba Yoshioka finds herself drawn to the slim and slightly short Kou Tanaka. He is at times quiet, other times expressive, with deeply penetrating eyes. They connect and finally admit their feelings for each other. A plan is made to meet for the festival, but Kou never shows. Flash forward to highshool and suddenly Futaba bumps into him out of nowhere. Is this really him? He has a different name and Kou was supposed to have moved away years ago. His personality seems a bit off as well. He's cold and sarcastic, not sweet and sensitive like before, but this new Kou can't quite seem to distance himself from Futaba completely.

In four chapters, Sakisaka-sensei manages to craft a richly detailed character in Futaba. At first she seems a bit aloof/infatuated with how others perceive her. She is clearly attractive, but also bears the emotional scars from being bullied in late middle school by jealous girls. She works hard to set out on a new path only to realize that she wasn't being true to herself.

Showing greater depth than we might have expected at first, Futaba is empathetic to others, particularly another girl getting bullied in her current class, and outspoken for herself when she needs to be. She's also not afraid to challenge Kou, if that really is him. When comparing how little we learn about the personhood of the female lead in another series I'm currently reading, even after three volumes, it truly is amazing what Sakisaka-sensei does to define Futaba so completely and compellingly in just one volume.

Kou too has depth. We see him at multiple ages, also with his older brother, his friends, and with Futaba. He is consistently inconsistent, or perhaps better described as fighting with himself. It's hard to talk about here because I know more from the anime, but it again goes to Sakisaka-sensei's strength in characterization that we want to know so much more even with all that she's given us to start with.

The story is a realistic one. There aren't crazy setups and plot for the sake of plot. In fact, nothing much happens in four chapters. We spend our time getting to know people. Even when Futaba confronts her current so-called-friends, it isn't an epic drama. This is a thoughtful, and somewhat low-key story buoyed by crisp art and deep characters.

It's hard to think of what would make this volume better. We have the classic setup of a boy and girl at odds who are clearly destined to be together. It is realistically told, rather than played for comedy or drama. It is subtle and beautiful. This could be the start of a modern and timeless classic. 9/10 for Ao Haru Ride volume 1! This is shoujo manga at its finest.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Young Master's Revenge Vol. 3 gets predictable, but that's okay (Manga Review)

Leo Tachibana and Tenma Tsuwabuki
Volume 3 of The Young Master's Revenge by Meca Tanaka (published by Shojo Beat/Viz) moves the story along its predictable path towards the inevitable conclusion. If you don't like spoilers you shouldn't read this series (let alone this review) because you had to know right from the mangaka's other series, and the story set-up, exactly what was going to happen.

To recap volumes 1 and 2, Leo Tachibana is the heir to a hot clothing line. In childhood, his father asked him to befriend Tenma Tsuwabuki, the heiress to a department store chain. However, one day, she pulled down his pants when he got bitten by turtles and all the other 5-year-olds laughed. Therefore he would devote himself to becoming so amazing that Tenma would fall in love with him at which point he would enact his revenge by rejecting her.

I spoke at length in my review for volume 1 of the ickiness factor of a setup revolving around a man weaponizing a woman's affections. That being said, we knew from the get-go that Leo would realize he's actually in love with Tenma. Volume 3 brings us that realization and the evolution of his care for Tenma.

A dream sequence has a young Leo talking to teenage Leo and pointing out that he's been in love with Tenma all along. The current teenage Leo is pretty accepting of this fact and moves forward to treat Tenma better, encouraging her to move in with an Aunt and stop doing his chores as repayment. A series of quick paced events follow this and fill up volume 3, none of which have much consequence. In short, Tenma begins to realize her feelings for Leo and vice versa. We know where the final volume will lead us when it comes out.

Given the short nature (four volumes) of this series, the side characters we meet tend to serve narrative purposes rather than being fully realized. That's too bad as the president of their new public high-school has some potential to be an awesome character (as mentioned in my review of volume 2). Sadly, she makes only a cursory appearance in volume 3. The same goes for Ise, GG, Tenma's friends, etc... This volume is mostly Tenma and Leo, but even that is fairly anti-climactic most of the time.

Further, we still struggle to get a feeling for Tenma's character. She too mostly serves a narrative purpose in this series rather than being fully realized. Yes, we get some continuing sense that she's oblivious to her feelings and that is played to nice comedic effect in a few brief scenes. We also see her resolve when she pushes against her aunt's wishes for her life. But the story really is from Leo's point of view, and so Tenma's thoughts, motivations, and core character remain somewhat elusive. That's also too bad. We just have to believe that she's really as awesome as Leo is starting to think.

Overall, volume 3 felt perfunctory. We know they are going to progress towards falling in love and this volume does that, but it doesn't offer any surprises or insights along the way. I have no problem with a two-people-falling-in-love story, but it needs (even in a comedy) to offer some meaningful insight. This series hasn't quite been funny enough to get around it's lack of touching moments and thoughtfulness. I know Tanaka-sensei can do it, so hopefully volume 4 will feel like more of a payoff.

I'm giving volume 3 a 6/10. It's going through the motions, it's perfectly fine and pleasant, the art continues to be quality, but there isn't anything that really jumps out from this volume. If you're a Tanaka-sensei fan, you'll certainly enjoy this, but it continues to be middling compared to some of her other works. (I feel like such an ass saying that, sorry Tanaka-sensei <3 )


Monday, October 8, 2018

After the Rain vol. 1 may be the best manga of 2018 (Manga Review)

I'm going to take After the Rain vol. 1 by Jun Mayuzuki (published by Vertical Comics) at face value until proven otherwise (we'll come back to this). And in light of that, it may be the best manga of 2018. It has everything I look for in a series. I don't give praise easily, and I was floored.

Let's start with the art, because I won't have to wade through any complex caveats there. I love realistic art where the character's limbs are impossibly long. I'm not a huge fan of cute or moe art styles which seem to have taken root in the genres I read most. I like the art in Hana-Kimi, Twinkle Stars, Utena and Nana for example. After the Rain's art is in that vein with long/tall characters but realism through and through.

Mayuzuki-sensei can show more emotion in her lead character's subtlest eye or mouth changes than most mangaka's can do with explicit text and screen toned hearts, flowers, explosions, and their facial features combined. One has only to look at the complexity of thought carried through just in the expression on the cover to see Mayuzuki's brilliance. So much is conveyed with such slight nuance. (Is she mad, angry, pouting, in love, happy, flirtatious?)

I don't know if this is Mayuzuki's style or that of the magazine this was printed in, but like many seinen manga, the use of screen tone is mostly relegated to shading and adding visual depth to each scene. It's done well here. I am, if you've been reading me at all, a fan of classically expressive shoujo style screentone use (lots of sparkles), which is absent here. However, that lack of glitter works here because the story is so subtly told, the pacing so delicate, the nuance so profound that to overuse screentones would take away from the realism of the scenes.

Additionally, her panel layouts are clean and simple. This is not art that gets in the way of the story or that demands immediate attention. Instead, it is precisely rendered, sensitive art in service of the mood of the story. Mayuzuki doesn't bring out the big art guns, but instead shows a deft touch with the pen, strong and consistent anatomy, and those incredibly expressive characterizations in her lead.

The story itself centers on second-year high-schooler, Akira Tachibana, the former track-team star, who retired after suffering a devastating ankle/lower leg injury (maybe tore an Achilles tendon or something). She works part-time in a family style restaurant. And she's in love with the manager. Who's 45. And balding. And not very good at his job. And sort of a push-over. And divorced with a young son. Living in a shithole apartment.

I will come back to that potentially very icky/male-gaze/fantasy setup momentarily, I promise, but remember, we're taking this at face value to start before we wade into the areas for potential concern.

Akira is one of the most simply complex or complexly simple characterizations I've seen in a long time in manga. It would be easy to reduce her to stereotypes at first blush: she's tall, long straight hair, good grades, athletic. Maybe she's haughty - after all, she doesn't speak a ton and people seem intimidated by her. Or do they?

What we actually get is a character who is generally liked, just quiet, not shy. She has friends from a range of backgrounds. Sometimes she goes out with them, sometimes not. She's normal without being manga-normal, as in: a ditzy cute can't-help-but-want-to-pet-her-head kind of depiction (thank god). She is sensitive to some people, oblivious to others, direct, and confident in herself without being aggressive. She's a balanced, strong, and real character.

Akira doesn't easily fit into any manga trope I've encountered. I keep returning to the word sensitive, as in Mayuzuki-sensei is sensitive in her handling of a character not just a collection of characteristics or tropes but as a fully rendered being. We like Akira not because she tugs on any particular heart string, or is a comic genius, or is a rough-and-tumble tom-boy, or clumsy, or any other cliche. We like her because she's pretty normal and put together but has feelings we find to be mirrors of our own.

So, great art and a great lead character. But what about the fact that we have a story whose setup consists of a 17-year-old girl being in love with a 45-year-old man? Is this just another seinen manga about male fantasy? Does she have daddy issues? Is she the victim of some terrible traumas and unmet childhood needs and using him in a futile attempt to fulfill herself at our voyeuristic expense?

I don't actually think so. I came in leery, I'm still a bit wary, but there was not a single damn thing in the entirety of this first volume to make me think that Mayuzuki-sensei will not continue to treat this story honestly at every turn.

It is possible, even in this age of increased awareness of predation and misogyny, and horrible power dynamics, that a young woman could be attracted to an older man and it not be awful (maybe). If we say we value a variety of narratives in literature, then we cannot insist that every narrative tells the "new" narrative, only the socially conscious or the traditionally marginalized narratives (which, don't get me wrong, we must tell and need many more of, by a more diverse group of creators as well).

But diversity doesn't mean going from all male-gaze narratives to all feminist narratives. And I'm not even sure that this isn't a feminist narrative anyway. Akira certainly seems to have agency at every turn. She has conversations with friends about things other than romance, she has complex emotions about things other than men (particularly watching her former teammates at track practice).

At face value, not as a standard-bearer for what is missing in literature, After the Rain's story is a possible narrative that could exist in the real world amongst the infinite variety of the human condition (My grandpa was 36 and my grandma 18 - and far better looking than he was!).

There are all types of attraction in the world and we cannot say categorically "no" to this one without risking censoring or limiting other types of love that diverge from traditional social norms (so long as we are conscious of whether there is an underlying power dynamic at play that disadvantages or removes agency from one party, particularly historically marginalized parties or ways of loving).

I sound like I'm doing back breaking contortions to justify an icky premise. In fact, what I mean to do is make it clear that sometimes we do back breaking contortions to find problems that don't actually exist because the superficial read is one that confirms our (perhaps valid) belief that the world is icky and out to get us (and sadly there has been so much to prove us right lately). But in After the Rain, despite the warning signs of the age difference, the text superbly handles a richly realized character and her feelings.

Akira genuinely seems to like her boss. Her boss is oblivious to her and certainly aware of how he comes across. But when she tells him she likes him, she doesn't dither, even when it doesn't get through the first time. Time will tell if Mayuzuki-sensei maintains the legitimacy or falls into a trauma-influenced understanding of why Akira is attracted to an older man. While that narrative may have validity too, I would be sad because her love appears to be something much more simple and universal and kind so far.

So through one volume, we have extraordinary art, a complex yet not overly dramatic lead character, and a beautiful, soft, burgeoning love story. We also get a sneak peak at the end to some needed complexity in the manager's character, a depth that may be what is speaking to Akira's soul even though neither realize it yet.

It was that glimpse that makes me so hopeful that what Mayuzuki-sensei captures with such graceful, quiet, beauty in this volume, can be sustained throughout the entire series. Whether they get together or not, whether Akira ultimately finds what she is looking for in him or not, whether it is a happy or a melancholy or just a bittersweet story, it appears as though Mayazuki-sensei has the capacity to tell an emotionally honest story about two people, even though on the surface it should raise our caution flags high.

But I love it so far. It let me with a soft glow. I can't wait for the next volume. I am so very hopeful for this story, even though I normally prefer yuri or classic shoujo and josei. The tone of this story is some of the finest art/writing combined this year in manga. It gets an 8/10 and it isn't higher only because I'm still nervous about whether the series will pull off the age-difference without reifying male power dynamics or treat trauma/daddy issues too lightly in the future. Let's hope After the Rain truly does become the landmark series it has the potential to be.


Friday, October 5, 2018

The Delinquent Housewife Volume 1 - one trick pony or good setup? (Manga Review)

Nemu Yoko
The Delinquent Housewife volume 1 by Nemu Yoko (published by Vertical Comics) has perhaps the best cover art for a first volume I have ever seen. That's a great start. Ultimately, it's unclear if this is a one-trick-pony or the start of a really cool manga. It appears to be published in a seinen magazine, so it also will be interesting to see how it develops its primary female protagonist as well as how it handles her younger brother-in-law. I'm hopeful but weary.

The basic premise has a newly married couple moving into the husband's parents house temporarily. He has two younger siblings, a brother in high-school and a sister in middle school. The younger sister is immediately wary of Komugi, her brother's wife. Suddenly, Komugi's new husband Tohru is called off indefinitely to another country for construction work leaving his young new bride alone with her in-laws.

Tohru's younger brother, Dai, catches Komugi sneaking out and hanging out with friends. At first he thinks she's in a gang, working as a prostitute, and doing other unsavory things. Turns out, she's a former delinquent, on the straight-and-narrow, but is avoiding her in-laws so they don't find out that she has no housekeeping or cooking skills and isn't actually employed.

Here's what's good about this volume:

  • The art - it's got a nice mature style to it without being overly formal. In fact, it's almost simple in its forms while avoiding any cutesy stuff stylistically.
  • Komugi is endearing. She plays the "perfect" mild housewife but is secretly a rough-and-tumble reformed "delinquent."

Here's the longer list of "concerns." I call them "concerns" with quotes because it's too early to know what Nemu Yoko-sensei will do with these threads. They could be used to tell a thoughtful and original story, OR they could devolve into tropes, misogyny, or reification of dated gender norms. Some spoilers to follow.

  • Komugi's husband leaves her after only a few days and is gone indefinitely. She's still madly in love with him. My hope is that he proves to be an asshole and she leaves him. Anything less will be deeply dissatisfying. It's just not okay to lie to your wife and say you're going away for a few days, and when you get there to tell your bride via a cassette-tape that you'll be gone indefinitely. Let's hope that awfulness gets owned.
  • There is currently a lot of value placed on traditional notions of a woman's role and place. I truly hope this manga turns that on its head over time so Komugi gets to be valued for who she is and not her "failure" to match society's desire for what a woman "should be." The setup makes me think they'll do that, but it could go either way at this point. There is nothing in volume 1 that overtly suggests that the narrative will push against social norms.
  • Dai. The younger-brother. They have to be setting him up as a love-interest/love-triangle. We get one scene where they are close to each other while playing a game and we get a heart-beat sound effect and at the resolution of that scene, a view of Komugi seemingly through Dai's eyes that show some longing for her.
    • If I had to play my hunch, here's how I see this series unfolding: 1) Dai and Komugi hang out more and more and become good friends. 2) Dai falls in love with Komugi. 3) Tohru leaves Komugi for a woman he meets overseas. 4) Dai and Komugi get together. (The predictable ending). In this version, Komugi doesn't have agency, and they go with the obvious back-up love interest.
    • What I'm afraid might happen is: 1) Dai falls in love with Komugi, 2) Tohru comes back, 3) Komugi ultimately stays with Tohru and learns how to do chores. (The traditional ending). This is the version that just lives in the gag-world and is satisfied with making jokes about how bad Komugi is with chores and hiding it from her in-laws.
    • What I'd rather see is: 1) Dai falls in love with Komugi. 2) Komugi realizes that Tohru is an asshole and leaves him. 3) Komugi and Dai get together but Komugi ultimately leaves him because he's too young and she realizes he needs to find his own path and she needs to find her own. (The real-world ending) A bittersweet ending would be best. It also places Komugi with a greater sense of agency as she leaves Tohru and she leaves Dai so that she's acting out of respect for herself and her worth being defined by her person-hood and not her skill in the kitchen.
As I said earlier, it's hard to know where this series will go after just one volume. It will either be a fulfilling counter-narrative to the "perfect" wife or it will ultimately fall apart and Komugi will be "reformed" and the asshole husband gets to be an asshole husband because he's a man.

Back to the title of this review. It also is possible that this will be a one-trick gag-type manga. Komugi is bad at chores, must keep her mother-in-law in the dark until Tohru gets home, etc... OR it will slowly give us more background on Komugi, expand her personality, dive into other characters, have deep complex relationships, have people growing and changing, etc...Just hard to tell from this volume and being published in a seinen magazine rather than a josei one gives me pause that it will stay the purely comic route. This issue is so focused on the chores that it doesn't leave much room for character development.

So it's really hard to rate Volume 1 of The Delinquent Housewife, because at face value, it was fun, we like Komugi, the art is good. But I'm so leery of where it might go that I'm afraid to like this volume too much. I'm giving it a 6/10 for the promise it shows, knowing full well that the story will either get richer or poorer from here.


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

CLASSIC MANGA - Reading "Songs to Make You Smile" by Natsuki Takaya

Natsuki Takaya
Twinkle Stars is my favorite manga of all time. Fruits Basket is close behind. So in anticipation of Natsuki Takaya's upcoming Fruits Basket Another volume 2, I've decided to go back and read her works that I had not yet gotten to. This week, it's "Songs to Make You Smile" a collection of one-shots published over several years early in her career.

Like most collections of one-shots, it's tough to develop the characters much and the plots are relatively perfunctory. Perhaps more so in a shoujo release than other genres (guy meets girl, girl pines for dad she didn't know...). This volume is no exception.

The first story, "Songs to Make You Smile" focuses on a high-school boy who barely speaks and the band he sings for, the girl who is misunderstood and bullied, and the way music brings them together. It's one of the better stories in this collection and the art, while still from an early point in her career, is closer to what we think of as her mid-career style (similar to the opening chapters of Fruits Basket, but not yet as refined as Twinkle Stars).

Next up is "Ding Dong" which features very early art in an early shoujo style. It's not refined art, nor refined storytelling. We do get themes that are repeated throughout Takaya-sensei's later works, including the parents who separate and in this case, even die, such that the daughter is left with a step-mom. Due to an inelegance in the writing and art, and a soap-opera, overly-dramatic story, it's one of my least favorite stories here.

Third is "Voice of Mine" which features a violinist and a violist. The female violist is accused of copying the phrasing of a classmate, the male violinist is accused of riding his talented parents coat-tails. Ultimately, the two of them explore what it means to have a personal voice in their playing and prove to others that their sound is unique. This one too has very early art, my guess is between the two prior ones in age, slightly more refined than "Ding Dong" but not yet recognizable as a step towards her mature style.

"Double Flower" is cute and different, and features a young man who loves to sew (perhaps foreshadowing Ayame from Fruits Basket?). One day, his young niece pops over and stays with him. She's feisty and calls it like she see's it. Despite giving him a hard time, she's clearly on his side, especially when it comes to the woman he loves. This one is simple, but due to having less pathos, is a nice change of tone from the others. The art is also in between the styles of the other stories.

The volume concludes with a parody chapter with the characters from Tsubasa: Those With Wings that probably isn't as meaningful to me because I haven't read it (yet - it's on order!). We can see from the art in this story how Takaya transitioned from Tsubasa to Fruits Basket's art styles as it is closer to the early chapters of Fruits Basket and more mature than several other stories here. I'm not sure if it was the translation or what, but several aspects of the story felt misogynistic, particularly some violence against women that was played for comedy. It also might just be dated, but either way, it didn't really work.

In all, probably only those who are Natsuki Takaya fans or fans of early 2000's shoujo should read this. It doesn't really hold up well enough on its own, nor is the art or writing so amazing that it can overcome its age. I'm going to give it a 5/10.

I have a hunch, given that Fruits Basket is mentioned on the cover, that it was published in the wake of the success Fruits Basket had, even though the stories are much older. I'm glad I read it, but mostly as a study in Takaya-sensei's development. Look for reviews of Tsubasa: Those With Wings and Phantom Dream, her older series, in the next few weeks.


Monday, October 1, 2018

Bloom Into You Volume 3 by Nakatani Nio is my favorite so far (Manga Review)

Touko and Yuu
I was pretty skeptical of Bloom Into You volume 1 and a bit less so for volume 2. So I am pleased to say that Bloom Into You volume 3 by Nakatani Nio (and published in the US by Seven Seas) takes another step forward on the quality scale.

Yuu's friend Koyomi is writing the script for the student council play. She pushes Yuu to identify some flaw in Touko that she can use to craft an interesting character. Yuu knows she can't spill the beans that Touko is actually a hot-mess inside and demurs. While discussing the play and other arrangements at a local cafe, Yuu, Touko, Sayaka and Koyomi see their female teacher who seems friendly with the female owner. Sayaka later asks the owner, and discovers the teacher is in a relationship with her. Sayaka also exposes her feelings for Touko to the owner after this revelation and we get to learn a lot about Sayaka's past relationship with a girl in middle-school.

This is the setup to a volume that mostly focuses on two things: 1) kissing and 2) the field day.

There is really good kissing. I won't lie. It's really well done.

Due to all the preparations, Touko and Yuu don't connect often, so Touko creates some alone time for them, and despite Yuu still not feeling romantically attracted to Touko, she seems to genuinely enjoy their make-out session.

This is what I'm starting to like about this series. Yuu is presented as a-romantic but not a-sexual. Maybe she is sexually attracted to girls or maybe not, but she is able to enjoy the physical contact even if she doesn't experience romantic love at it. We don't often get nuanced representations of the romantic spectrum in manga, and I'm liking this take on it. It also leads to a volume-concluding interaction with Touko that will stay with you for it's heat, but is also consistent from a characterization standpoint and maybe even moves it along a bit. Well done.

The art continues to be consistent in style and well done, even if not exactly my favorite type - I like it a bit more realistic than cute. There is good use of contrast with a regular balance of stark white, middle-gray, and black on the characters. Other than that, screentones are used to create "color" differences in the backgrounds, but not in the fantastical way of some classical shoujo (I'll admit to being a classic shoujo screentone fan - lots of starbursts and sparkle - so I probably notice and miss this more than the average person). Basically, I'm saying the art is good, but a bit on the cutesy side.

I also liked this volume's balance of inner narration, multiple character perspectives, a bigger cast, action and plot with the field day, and THE KISSING SCENES which were pretty beautiful - especially the final ones.

Overall, I was really pleasantly surprised that this volume felt more focused in its plotting and character development and has made me hopeful for the whole series. I give it an easy 7/10! Nice job Nio-sensei.