Saturday, February 16, 2019

My Solo Exchange Diary volume 2 leads Nagata Kabi to new insights (Manga Sort-of-Review)

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is one of the greatest manga/graphic-novels of all time. It was a profound reading experience and I recommend it to everyone.

My Solo Exchange Diary (published by Seven Seas) is the two volume sort-of-sequel to MLEWL. Volume 2 came out this week and I devoured it. However, unlike my normal reviews which are actual critical reviews, I feel that doing a critical review of a work that is part memoir, part personal recovery process, and mostly focused on the devastating impact of mental health would be rude.

So instead, this will be a discussion of volume 2, but please know from the onset just how much I support Kabi-sensei in her personal and artistic journey and as a personal sufferer of extreme mental health challenges (and the parent to a child with the same, and a child of a parent with the same) this is a very powerful story on that level as well.

Where MLEWL was split between mental health and sexual awakening and coming-out, My Solo Exchange Diary volumes 1 and 2 were largely focused on Kabi-sensei's mental health challenges (and essentially exclusively so in volume 2) as she works to emerge into the new found light following the publication of MLEWL. Volume 2 of My Solo Exchange Diary is told in the same minimal, sketchy, doodley art in pink and black ink. It is also episodic in a way that MLEWL wasn't.

Two central, but interrelated experiences dominate the story: Kabi-sensei's work to reconcile and rebuild her relationship with her family and her several inpatient hospitalizations for mental health. One of the most powerful moments comes when Kabi-sensei realizes that all the anger and hate she had for her family (vivid in MLEWL) was completely misplaced. She recognizes her inability to receive the love they were always giving and begins to take it all in. Through this, she begins to spend more time at her parents house and less time in her new apartment.

Sadly, her blooming relationship with her family also plays at least a part in her downward spiral which leads to the hospitalizations. She regresses to a degree, but also starts to see how she's been a burden to her family and perhaps more critically, how she has directly hurt them with her actions and with the way she framed their story in MLEWL.

We get several instances of self harm in this volume mixed with a birthday party and time with a friend. We see Kabi-sensei at work and struggling to find creative voice amongst her debilitating mental health. Her accidental solo visit with a grandmother is one of the smallest but most beautiful moments in the volume. She also dives further into her alcohol abuse, which appears as a form of self-medication, and leads to some really pitiful moments such as waking up repeatedly in a bed she has wet due to being so inebriated. What it must have taken Kabi-sensei to share so much tragedy and pain and to reflect so much on herself in these three books. Volume 2 is filled with so many moments of profound growth amongst its pain.

By the end of volume 2, Kabi-sensei finds herself out of the hospital, trying to get through each day by doing something for someone else (rather than being so locked in her own head), and questioning how she is portraying people in this very volume prior to publication. While not ending with any real resolution (because there is no resolution in an ongoing life), there is a satisfactory conclusive feel that still leaves the door open for Kabi-sensei to develop future memoirs should she desire to.

If you loved My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, then you will want to follow Kabi-sensei in My Solo Exchange Diary. But if you haven't read either, please go back and read MLEWL. That is essential reading.

My Solo Exchange Diary works as a slightly more subdued continuation without the gripping immediacy and stunning originality of the earlier work. I pray for Kabi-sensei, and am grateful for what these three books have given me. Seeing her journey in print, both as a gay woman discovering herself in adulthood and as someone suffering from debilitating mental health challenges, has helped me to feel less alone, more understood, and hopeful that through her work that society itself can begin to have a place for all of us.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Ao Haru Ride v.3 - amazing like the first two volumes (Manga Review)

Yoshioka Futaba
Ao Haru Ride volume 3 (Shojo Beat/Viz) continues the strong start to the series from the first two volumes. Futaba finally acknowledges her feelings for Kou - the current Kou - and no longer pines for the lost Kou from middle-school. However, since Yuri confided in Futaba that she too likes Kou, Futaba must decide whether to stop pursuing him or tell Yuri of her feelings as well.

This sets up the central drama and character growth of the third volume. This is skillfully handled and we get a beautiful middle ground between this interaction between Futaba and Yuri being no big deal and being a huge overly-dramatized situation (what would have happened in most series). Instead, Sakisaka-sensei's deftness for writing nuanced characters and emotionally-sensitive moments comes through so powerfully in this volume.

Not only is the Futuba/Yuri storyline done with delicacy, intimacy, and a touch of sadness, we also start to get greater glimpses into Kou and Shoko (a side character). With Kou, we see him struggling to want to connect, whether it is with Futaba, or with Kaminato (who comes to his defense in a scene that confirms his good-guy qualities). Kou even opens up a bit to Futaba and others, making some significant statements that reveal an inner sadness momentarily before he waves them off as jokes. Also, like the last volume, Kou comes tantalizingly close to acting on what we hope are brewing feelings for Futaba, before ultimately refusing to allow himself to go down that path.

With Shoko, a side story gives us some of her background, but we also see her true (kind) character in the moments after Futaba finally tells Yuri about her feelings for Kou. Without giving anything away, the awareness, empathy, and skill with which Shoko supports both her friends is incredibly touching and well written.

I know I'm gushing, but the truth is, this series so far represents everything I love about the best shoujo. The characters are nuanced, the writing is emotionally astute, the story is complex without being overly-dramatic or using unrealistic situations to create movement. It is one of the best written series out there.

More than great writing, great characters, and a great story so far (as if that isn't enough), it also has extraordinarily beautiful art. The characters are so well defined, the lines are precise but soft, and (my favorite thing of all) there is gorgeous and complex use of screen tones that adds so much depth and grace to each panel. To see an example of this, just look at the intro drawing of Yuri from Chapter 11. The gray screentone around the stars, the way it blends into the shadowing of her left eye, the layers of circular screens at the bottom. And every page is like this!
Ao Haru Ride v3

Really, I don't know what else to tell you. Do you like shoujo manga? Do you like really well written manga? Do you like well written characters, emotionally intelligent writing, plot driven by subtle every-day things? Do you like great art? Do you breathe? If you answered "yes" to any of those, then you will love Ao Haru Ride v. 3. This volume, given how many incredible yet delicate moments there are in each chapter, gets a 9/10! If you've read any of my other manga or anime reviews, you know I don't give a score like that out lightly. This is a must-read series.

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Now Loading...! fails to compile (Manga Review)

Takagi x Kaori
I am delighted with the boom in yuri manga, and delighted that we're getting some self-contained single volume releases in the US. I'm also pleased with the increased availability of yuri manga about adult women (see After Hours). However, "Now Loading...!" (Seven Seas) is about as boring and non-descript as you can get. So while it hearkens to a good overall trend, it is probably a volume worth skipping.

This self-contained five-chapter story is about a young woman, Takagi, who joins a video game company. She meets her boss and Senpai: Kaori. Kaori develops feelings for Takagi, kisses her, they finish their game successfully, and they get together. That's it. Not really a spoiler because it's a self-contained yuri so of course they would get together. With stories like these, it's the journey that matters.

Sadly, that's where "Now Loading...!" fails completely. No characters are explored in any depth. There is no real emotional arc for anyone. There is no real insight into why the characters fall for each other. They are incredibly bland characters with no rich lives, feelings, thoughts, or actions. The story itself, about a game design and launch is both superficial and somewhat insincere in its depiction of how the industry works.

So let's be honest. This story reads like some editor said: "'New Game!' was amazing. What if we made it into a yuri? Who would be interested in doing that?" And they found some mangaka to just spit it out. In fact, their understanding of the game industry seems like it came exclusively from watching "New Game!" in that so much of it mirrors that anime/manga exactly but doesn't even have that series' minimal level of industry complexity or understanding (as simplistic as even that series is).

Further, while "New Game!" was funny, cute, charming, etc..."Now Loading...!" (notice the similarity of the title presentation - likely an artifact of US marketing?) is just so bland. The art is really really mediocre. It's neither cute nor realistic. I think it's trying to be cute-ish, but it fails. It's also very simple with minimal backgrounds, no real screen tones (other than for basic shades of gray), etc...

The writing isn't funny either even though it tries to be. The pacing is strange, chunky, and fast. The setups for jokes fail when they are even there. And the romance, what little there is, is so random and not at all how real people work, that it fails to inspire any emotional resonance. It's just a very, very mediocre endeavor.

I was excited by an adult yuri self-contained story. I'm so glad it's out there and I hope it portends to more to come. But, "Now Loading...!" was a disappointment. It gets a 5/10 because while there is nothing really problematic, there is nothing to recommend it either. The romance is underwhelming, the art and writing are very bland, the story is superficial and not interesting. Just watch "New Game!" and ship Aoba and Ko in your head instead.

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Sunday, February 3, 2019

Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai season end review (Anime Review)

Sakuta x Mai
This pretty much sums up the problems with the series. Average guy, way too many beautiful girls, and he's the one that can solve all their problems. It had potential, and a great female lead that was underutilized, but ultimately got boring and redundant.
I reviewed the first half of the terribly named "Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai" here, so this is my follow-up on the second half of the first (only?) season. Despite its name, the first few episodes were surprisingly good. However, in that first half of the season were two story arcs. The first one, while pretty good, was followed by a disappointingly redundant second arc and less time with the burgeoning relationship between our two leads, Sakuta and Mai. Much like that disappointing second arc from the first half of the season, the second half of the season was composed of two more disappointingly redundant arcs and a very unfulfilling conclusion. Basically, the show started off surprisingly decent and became boring pretty quickly.

The quick summary of the series: Sakuta and his sister, Kaede have both experienced puberty syndrome, a strange metaphysical set of experiences that have wrecked their lives. Sakuta living with huge scars across his chest and Kaede having been so traumatized by bullying that she can no longer leave the house, the mere thought of it bringing strange bruises all over her body.

The series starts with Sakuta in a library watching as a high-school girl in a bunny girl outfit strolls through the stacks, seemingly invisible to everyone else but him. Finally talking to her, she's surprised that anyone can see her. Turns out Mai is a former child star whom the world has literally forgotten. To prove this to herself, she dresses in that ostentatious outfit and still can't get attention. But Sakuta can see her. Thus starts their quest to make her visible again and through this, their relationship blooms.

The absolute best parts of the series are the interactions between Sakuta and Mai. She is confident and vulnerable at the same time, and her dialogue is so well written, as are his responses and complete devotion to her. They are a joy on screen together. However, after the first few episodes, now that she is seen again, she restarts her career and has little time for him, and little screen time at all. Instead, the final 3/4 of the series, including the specific two arcs reviewed here, are pretty much Sakuta addressing puberty syndrome in others. It's boring, it's the same basic stuff again and again, predictable, and without any of the joy that Sakuta and Mai bring when interacting with each other.

We get an arc where we are introduced to Mai's half sister and they switch bodies. So most of our time is either with someone who looks like Mai, but is actually her sister, or Mai but in her sister's body (which we don't get much time with anyway, as that time is spent in rehearsals for her sister's girl group). The natural conclusion to the body swap is for them to heal their emotional distance from each other. Duh.

The last arc has to do with Kaede, Sakuta's sister, an interestingly depicted character throughout who has a strange crush on her brother and may be meant more as sis-con service than anything else. However, we do get some greater insight into why she acts like this as her true story unfolds. I'm not going to give that away, as it has some value to it. But, when it all unfolds, we're left with a non-resolution that is both emotionally painful for Sakuta as well as the audience. There is a great sense of loss with this ending. That certainly has value, in that it did generate true emotion in me, but it was also somewhat against the tenor of the series. I wonder however, if this goes further in later volumes of the light novels on which the anime is based. Either way, it wasn't a satisfying ending for what was overall a light comedy series.

Further, we get more insight into the strange girl that Sakuta saw when he first went through puberty syndrome himself. That too is a strangely unsatisfactory explanation and does not in the least tie into or resolve the similarly named younger character, who is introduced in the middle of the series, stays with them for a few days, and then is promptly never to be seen in the series again. Poor writing? Who knows, maybe this goes further in the later light novels as well, but it's too many loose ends for me.

So aside from the relatively boring and predictable final half of the series, and too little time with Mai and Sakuta's relationship, there are other overall concerns with this series. Basically, the show has an average male lead who gets the beautiful and talented girl, and is surrounded by many other beautiful girls at all times. Sakuta is actually a nice guy, so it isn't that bad, but clearly this is meant to mostly appeal to boys/men.

But my biggest qualm is that it is another series in which the male has to come to the rescue and solve all the women's problems. Now, there is his friend Rio Futaba who helps him unravel many of the problems, but she's mostly a sounding board for useless pseudo-science jargon and he ultimatley has to help her too (in a strangely service-y story line). Ultimately it is Sakuta who solves things for all the girls in the series. I'm not really comfortable with that combination of nice but non-descript guy, gets all the girls, and solves all their problems.

This isn't a bad show, per se, but it is problematic and doesn't live up to its early potential. It also clearly cops aspects of "Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya" and "My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU" (or at least squarely fits into that genre but not nearly as good as those two), so if you liked those shows you'll like this. But what could be a wonderful romance between Sakuta and Mai is so under-represented with screen time, and the plots are so relatively predictable in their resolution, mixed with the male-dominant focus, that it was just overall underwhelming. What was a strong first few episodes became boring and perfunctory for the final 3/4 of the series. With that I'm giving it a watchable but cautious 6/10. I want to give it a lower score, but there are some redeeming qualities and it is watchable despite it's flaws and male-dominant value system.

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Thursday, January 31, 2019

"The Delinquent Housewife" Volume 3 is more broad fun (Manga Review)

Komugi
The Delinquent Housewife Volume 3 (Vertical Comics) continues the broadly delivered fun and romance of the first two volumes. If you liked the series so far, then volume 3 is sure to please.

Summary with some spoilers: Our story picks up with Dai's classmate, Yoshino, having just kissed and confessed to him. Ultimately, Dai and Yoshino go on a date, but Dai keeps bumping into his sister-in-law, Komugi. Dai is crushing hard on Komugi, Yoshino is aware of Dai's feelings, and Dai is just trying to keep those two apart. Dai decides to turn down Yoshino. Ultimately, Yoshino decides to take matters into her own hands regardless of Dai's feelings and pulls Komugi into a plan to expose Komugi's gang-past and force Dai away from Komugi and into Yoshino's arms.

We finally get to see Komugi face her feelings of anger and sadness over her husband being away so long. It's good to see that side of her. But we also begin to get the sense that she may be thinking about Dai a little too much. Again, if this were a more serious series, then I would have trouble with characters' feelings and motivations. But as it is meant to be a very loose comedy, it works because the two leads (Dai and Komugi) are imminently likable. I continue to hope though that they won't get together and instead we will get a bittersweet ending. We'll see.

This is a broad romantic-comedy series. There is nothing subtle about it. It's fast paced, roughly written, but endearing all the same. The art has a very loose, fluid quality. It isn't very detailed, but that works for the overall tone of the series.

Because nuance is not its forte, I have to keep reminding myself that character emotions and motivations shouldn't be dug into too much. Yoshino in particular would bother me in any other series. She's so openly aggressive and her plot to expose Komugi is so intense as to be completely unrealistic. However, realism isn't the point of this series. There are also many over the top situations that Dai and Komugi find themselves in just for the sake of creating romantic tension. Things like this would never happen in the real world, but in the spirit of this series, are completely par for the course here and set up the emotional reactions and humor we expect.

Again, if you like big comedy wrapped in a unique shoujo/seinen hybrid with a romantic plot line, then this is definitely your series. Volume 3 is just as strong as the first two, so if you liked the series so far, you'll like this volume. I'm giving it a 7/10 as it isn't anything profound, but is quite enjoyable for what it is.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

"Yuri Is My Job" Volume 1 is about to be unemployed (Manga Review)


I'm an unabashed fan of yuri anime and manga. I'm also an unabashed fan of Maria Watches Over Us (Marimite), that seminal light-novel/anime which restarted the yuri boom and also helped to define some of its current visual/plot conventions. "Yuri is my Job" Volume 1 (Kodansha Comics) sounded like a fun take on the genre. But what sounded like a great idea, was actually quite disappointing in its execution.

"Yuri is my Job" is a comedy yuri manga about a first-year high-school girl who gets roped into working as a waitress in a cafe. What makes this cafe unique is that it is modeled on an all-girls school, similar to those in Marimite (which of course was based on the historical Catholic schools of a century ago in Japan as well as the types of ultra-close relationships between girls in those schools that was seen as natural before becoming adults: see here and here). In this cafe, the girls act the part of pure maidens, slowly forming deep bonds with each other, and maybe choosing a special girl to be their "schwestern" (German for sister and a classic play on "soeur" from Marimite). The whole act is done for the adoring patrons, most of whom seem to be young men.

Our lead character is Hime. Her goal in life is to be married to a rich man and she will do everything she can to be so lovely that no one could possibly say no. She never intended to work a day in her life. When she gets stuck working at the cafe, she meets a tall, dark haired young woman named Ayanokouji (reminiscent of the classic older, perfectly proper, student). Hime is struck by this woman and wants her approval as part of her overall quest to ensure everyone loves her. But Ayanokouji's personality is not at all the lovely school maiden, but instead, is pissed that Hime is there at all. Despite all the Hime does to be likable, Ayanokouji seems unmoved, causing Hime much distress.

Hime's friend in school, Kanoko, gets worried about Hime, tracks her down, and gets brought into the cafe herself. We get hints that Kanoko is actually obsessed with Hime. She also is quite aware that Hime is an empty shell, just pretending to be lovely to attract her eventual husband. Hime, too, is pretty open (to herself anyway) about the fact that she has nothing other than her likability going for her. What she looks for in others is being liked, not anything in the least reciprocal. However, in an extra at the end, there is a brief exchange where Hime does seem concerned that Kanoko is doing something just for Hime's sake, and it's the first real moment where we see Hime care about anyone other than herself.

The volume focuses on Hime's desire to have Ayanokouji like her (simply to prove that Hime is likeable) and Hime's rough introduction to the rules of the cafe. We get the sense that Hime may eventually go beyond wanting Ayanokouji to like her due to her fake traits, and actually like the real Hime (or maybe this is wishful thinking on my part for some real plot and motivations). We also clearly get the sense that Kanoko likes Hime as more than a friend. However, Ayanokouji reveals a further complication in this at the end of the volume.

All that said, despite being billed as a romantic dramedy (on the back cover) this is a straight up comedy yuri as best I can tell. It seems to some degree like its purpose is to have fun with the tropes of the genre. However, it doesn't do so with the heart of a true fan. One gets the sense that someone described yuri in a paragraph to the creator and the creator generated this story based on that summary of the genre. I don't feel that this person loves yuri and wanted to satirize it out of love. In fact, the entire thing seems like a commercially created endeavor and not an honest work of art.

And for a comedy, it isn't actually very funny. The satire isn't rich or deep enough for true fans, nor is it biting and scathing enough to be a counter-commentary. There is nothing but superficial elements of yuri presented to signal the genre but not to actually dive into its nuances or intricacies. Hime is a completely superficial character that is given no real motivation for her ways and we spend no significant time with her outside of the cafe. Why should we bother to root for her or any of the others? The writing is overall spastic and unclear throughout. The art is very typical and uninspiring.

So maybe Hime will fall in love with Ayanokouji, maybe Ayanokouji will eventually overcome her dislike of Hime and reciprocate. Maybe Kanoko will get hurt. Maybe Hime will realize how wonderful Kanoko is. But who cares? The satire is surface level, the comedy is bland and perfunctory, the characters are wooden and 2-dimensional, the writing is poor, the art forgettable, no real emotions are evoked, and the whole look of the book smacks of something put together to pander to the audience. But I'm not even sure which audience that would be.

This isn't a work for true fans of yuri. I love the idea of a yuri satire, but that satire should be targeted towards those who love yuri the most and thus should be rich with details and unexpected ways of exploring the tropes. OR, it should be a satire in criticism of the genre as a way of exploring problematic aspects within the genre. BUT instead, this is just a maid cafe set in a "yuri" world for the sake of maybe eventually showing some girls kiss. It isn't funny, it isn't romantic, it isn't heart-rending, it isn't much of anything. This gets a 5/10 from me and I won't be rushing to buy volume 2 any time soon.

By way of getting another opinion on this, here's Erika's review from Okazu. Apparently things get slightly better in later volumes. I still might pass though.

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Saturday, January 26, 2019

Tomo-chan is a Girl Volume 2 (Manga Review)

I totally crapped out on the headline for this! I couldn't even come up with something witty and that's because Tomo-chan is a Girl volume 2 (Seven Seas) is so exactly what you would expect after reading volume 1, that it almost seems silly to review it at all. That's not a criticism. It's a 4-koma comedy shoujo that has the same cute, light, tone as volume 1. If you liked volume 1, then just go ahead and buy volume 2.

The story centers on Tomo, a rough and tumble martial-arts ass-kicking high-school girl who is in love with her childhood friend Jun. Jun is also, maybe, but might not realize it exactly, in love with Tomo too. But they are both so dense as to have no idea how to tell the other nor show it in traditional ways. Tomo in particular struggles with presenting as typically feminine (of course, why should she bother to be something she isn't? Exploring that would have been a real boundary pusher, but more than we could probably expect from a simple 4-koma).

Volume 2 has Tomo and Jun go on a date where they just end up doing the things they both enjoy doing, such as the batting cages, even if it isn't very romantic. We also get to spend a lot of time with Carol and Misuzu. Both are wonderful comic foils, Misuzu as the straight one, and Carol as the pawn. Carol just makes me laugh as the stereotypically blond-haired, blue-eyed simpleton. She reminds me a bit of Olivia from Asobi Asobase but even more of a complete moron. I love how Carol and Misuzu interact. There is also a great scene where Carol gives Tomo her headband and how uncomfortable it makes both of them.

We also spend some time meeting Tomo's mother and father, a funny duo themselves and see Tomo destroy a gang leader only to cause Jun to have to take out the entire gang single-handedly so Tomo won't be bothered (even though she could certainly have handled it herself).

There's not much else to say really. The art is nothing special, the cover in particular is really really minimal (as you can see above with the thick - almost blown up - lines), but it's serviceable. If you like 4-koma and you like a silly tom-boy romance with funny side characters, then Tomo-chan is a Girl volume 2 will be for you. Given the consistency of the first two volumes, I won't be reviewing future volumes because there isn't much to write about. That's not a bad thing at all, it just isn't very deep so it doesn't lend itself to much discussion. This volume is a solid 7/10 for what it is, it's cute and funny, but nothing new or revelatory, just a light quick read.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

"Yes, You Are Trans Enough' By Mia Violet is a vital and needed book.

I'm not sure who made the recommendation, but thanks to the twitter, I bought (and then devoured), Mia Violet's memoir/trans-affirmation story "Yes, You Are Trans Enough" (Jessica Kingsley Publishers). This is a vital and essential text for trans-individuals. My hunch is that it will be particularly helpful to trans women like myself because it is so personally written about the experience of growing up and transitioning in adulthood, when so many possibilities still exist but the pain might be greater as well.

The book chronicles Mia's childhood, perceived and raised as a boy in the UK, in what sounds like a fairly blue-collar environment. Her childhood was marred by the teasing, harassment, and physicality of boys and her own unwavering sense of out-of-place-ness. It includes an aborted coming-out to her mother at 14, and finally, in her mid-twenties, unable to contain it any longer, a full coming out including social and medical transition. 

This book provides so much, on so many levels. First, it is important to have as many diverse trans narratives as possible. Even to this day, the media still has a tendency to highlight early child-hood transition or those children whose sense of being a trans person is clear to them at an early age. But that is far from the only narrative. Seeing the early childhood narrative predominate causes real harm to those trans individuals who didn't have that clarity in their toddler years and may who come to doubt that what they are feeling now (at whatever age), is truly a concrete sense of their gender because it arrived later than others'. 

I am one of those individuals who despite knowing that everything in my life was off, just not right, and that boys were a different species, way back in my elementary years, still had no sense that I was a girl like those young and certain trans children in the media stories. By high-school I was getting some glimmers of what my feelings meant, but that was in the 90s and transgender wasn't a term I had ever heard. It would never have occurred to me that someone could transition. If you had asked me, I still wouldn't have known I was a girl.

I was 21, in the early 2000s before I finally had that "ah ha!" moment and realized that I was a girl. And yet, even then, I found it hard to believe and accept in full, in large part because I STILL hadn't heard the word transgender, didn't know anyone like me, didn't hear any stories like mine, and knew nothing about transitioning.

Now, at 38, I am just taking my first steps towards transitioning, having spent the last decade coming to fully accept that I really am a trans girl (and not believing that I could ever transition until just last year). Experiences like those, filled with doubt, are just a small piece of what Mia Violet means when she says "Yes, You Are Trans Enough." This is the book that I wish I had had in middle-school (or earlier! - maybe a YA version!). 

I wonder, much as Mia does at times, what having more information, more diverse narratives, more representation, more health instruction, more visibility might have done to speed things up, to keep from losing time - my teens and 20s and 30s as a girl which I will never get back. (Time is a horrible horrible burden that so many trans people face when unfairly critiquing their lives before transition, getting stuck on what wasn't rather than on what will be in the future).

But Violet does more than just present an important counter-narrative to the childhood transition. She explores the vastly dehumanizing medical gatekeeping processes of the British health system. We see her astonishing sympathy for a family that does not readily accept her. She also exposes the horrendous depths of inner turmoil that many trans people face. And importantly, she talks about how she took control over her own life and mind to lead a life of affirmation. Certainly not all trans individuals will experience as much or the same types of dysphoria, anxiety, worry, and other emotions as Violet did, but I was astounded by how closely some of her terms and phrases and images replicated with my own thought patterns in similar circumstances.

Most recently, having just started my electrolysis, I was flooded with crushing emotions walking out of the office after the first full visit. I know I am a girl, I want to transition, I know that getting rid of my facial hair is incredibly important to me, so why then did this wonderful occasion spark such negative feelings, feelings of doubt, feelings of being a monster, feelings of worry about being victimized? Well, Mia felt many of those same feelings the night she got her first HRT pills in the mail. Reading that not only Mia, but many other trans people, often feel this incredibly complex and overwhelming flood of emotion right before or after critical steps in their process helped me to reevaluate my own feelings and come out the other side more quickly. I thank her so desperately for that.

From the childhood bullying, to feeling out of place around boys, to the goth/rocker persona, to the aborted coming out to a parent, to finally not being able to keep it in any more, Mia Violet's narrative felt similar to my own, giving me a mirror and a model where I had none before. Certainly this is but one of countless narratives, so your journey may be entirely different, but the underlying feelings, doubts, supports, and realizations are likely to resonate. 

Further, the structure of the book is well done with periodic breaks in the overarching chronological narrative that allow Violet to speak for a paragraph or two about some issue in general, provide background on various trans topics, or even ruminate on life lessons before returning to the story.  The writing is brisk and very readable, so combined with a critical narrative and important general information, it makes "Yes, You Are Trans Enough" a strong read.

Even for those readers who are not trans themselves, there is so much on offer here. This may be one of the closest those readers will come to living in a trans person's head without the unnecessary (and perhaps deceitful) drama of a TV production or movie. This is one real person's real life, told with introspection and humor but also episodes of darkness. But it never stoops to playing on the reader's emotions. She is simply sharing in the hopes others will benefit from her story. It is straightforward, insightful, revealing, hopeful, and affirming all at once. I am so very glad I read this, and only wish I had had it in my life much much sooner! Thank you Mia Violet for sharing your ongoing journey. This is one trans girl who is incredibly grateful to you and looks up to you with all her heart!

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Monday, January 21, 2019

The Bloom Into You anime is a subtle improvement on the manga (Anime Review)

Nanami and Yuu
I've had very mixed feelings about the Bloom Into You manga (although generally I like it, I just haven't felt settled with it or enthralled by it). So I was pleasantly surprised by how much more I enjoyed the Bloom into You anime. It isn't perfect, but it was a subtle improvement, and most importantly, it helped me sort out my feelings about the manga.

For those living in a yuri cave, here's the quick synopsis. Yuu is a first year high-school student at a co-ed high-school. She was on the softball team in middle school but isn't really passionate about things and hasn't decided what to do extracurricularly in high-school. Her teacher asks her to help with a student council project and she meets the likely candidate for the next student council president, second-year student Nanami Touko. In talking to Nanami, Yuu believes that they might be similar, that Nanami might understand something fundamental to Yuu that she is struggling with. Yuu has friends, but has never felt the ability to fall in love, never to be swept away, and is worried she's alone in this aromantic state. But she thinks Nanami is the same, that is, until Nanami suddenly confesses that she's in love with Yuu.

Thus begins the friendship, and perhaps more, of Yuu and Nanami. Yuu likes Nanami as a friend, is intrigued by her, and ultimately wants to protect her as she gets to know that the seemingly strong and confident Nanami is actually scared and insecure and delicate and emotional. Yuu wants to lend this fragile creature her strength, feeling honored that Nanami has opened up so completely to her when she is so guarded around everyone else.

But Nanami wants more. She is in love with Yuu and is sexually attracted to her as well. She goes so far as to kiss Yuu as a train passes (in a very well animated scene). Although Yuu doesn't feel any spark, and hates herself for that lack of feeling, she doesn't mind the feeling of the kiss and over time, she and Nanami continue to blend friendship with benefits, but in a clearly uneven exchange of needs. Nanami worries that she's getting more out of it than Yuu, but Yuu assures her she wants to spend the time together, and doesn't mind the physical contact. Yuu continues to struggle with her aromantic nature, but also begins to develop some comfort from just being close with Nanami.

First, and foremost, it is incredible to have a series that clearly depicts an aromantic lead character. I felt the anime actually does a much better job of making this the clear and central focus of the series than the manga did. It felt a bit more implied in the manga, whereas the focus was laser sharp in the anime. This was a huge improvement for me over the manga.

I love the pacing of this anime. I loved that when taking notes, I could summarize each episode in a single sentence. My favorite shows (live action and anime) are those where nothing plot-wise really happens, where it is more about the characters interacting in low-stakes, every-day situations (think Gilmore Girls). This show had great pacing for that. It was character driven, with no big dramatics. There is also some great use of music cues throughout the series, further adding to an overall well done presentation.

The art is a mixed bag in this series. There are some great moments, such as in the first episode when Yuu first thinks that Nanami might understand her, there is a hand movement that is simply amazingly animated. But there are also some strange choices. Throughout the first episode, and intermittently throughout the rest of the series there are some POV moments where our vantage point is presented as if we are looking through a character's eyes. This is so odd given the rest of the series in traditional third person presentation. It doesn't add anything, and the forced giggly camera movement and the move to first person is jarring.

The backgrounds are lushly painted, with classic soft lighting and pastel hues but with some wonderful detail. The detail in the student council room is incredible. They are using an old out-building with cracked and painted wood paneling, and it is some of the best background art I've seen in ages.

But on the other hand, the actual character animation art is very very simple and ends up not fitting in well with the backgrounds. It stays true to the aesthetic of the manga, but can't quite decide whether to be angular or rounded at different parts. Further, I really don't like the way the eyes are animated. They are very flat with simple coloring and just a slit of a pupil. They don't resonate with the viewer, they aren't windows into the characters' souls.

Episode two contains the first kiss, with the passing train, and as I mentioned, this was done with far greater intimacy and emotion than the manga. There was also an interesting use of desaturated gray coloring to signal to the viewer that Yuu isn't feeling anything while Nanami is blushing. However, they also added TV-style static which felt unnecessarily visually aggressive in attempting to drive the point home. It was gimmicky.

And the voice acting. I struggled with this. Yuu's voice actress is the same woman who voices Aoba in New Game! I love New Game! and Aoba, and I loved the sound of the actress's voice for that character. However, it is such a distinct voice that every time Yuu spoke, I just heard Aoba and it consistently, for the whole series, took me out of the moment. That won't be a problem for many people, but for me it was tough. This isn't meant as a criticism of the voice actress because I love her voice and acting, it was simply tough for me to not hear Aoba when Yuu was speaking.

Talking more about characters, I struggled with Nanami's best friend Sayaka who feels more like a stock character than a fully realized person. This is too bad because she could add value, but feels superfluous given the complexity of the Yuu/Nanami pairing.

Yuu's depiction is spot on. I love that Yuu's sense of fashion is not classically feminine. Her hair is done in two low short pig-tails, just enough to keep it off her neck, but nothing overtly pretty. She wears long Bermuda shorts on her time off, with random t-shirts and it adds to our overall understanding of her character.

Touko Nanami's arc is a bit of a sticking point for me. I don't want to give it all away in case you haven't seen the show. But I'm not convinced by her motivation and the extreme lengths she goes to fulfill that motivation. However, it does set up some interesting baggage for her to work through with Yuu and deciding whether she really wants Yuu to ultimately reciprocate or if she's content with loving on Yuu and getting little intimate affection in return (although she is getting support and friendship). Some of Nanami's internal thoughts in later episodes just seem a bit extreme and overly-dramatic, even by teenage standards. This is a challenge in the original manga as well as the anime.

Putting this all together, we have a show that improves on the manga, tackles a very important and underrepresented theme, that of aromanticism, and is overall well done technically despite some questionable animation choices. It distills the manga down to its purest and clearest form really focusing on Yuu's internal struggles with her identity. 

And yet, as much as I enjoyed it and preferred it to the manga, I still wasn't enraptured. BUT, the clarity of the anime presentation helped me to better understand this detachment. Normally, I love shows with tons of wistful glances, blushing cheeks, will-they-won't-they moments, and all the sweet drama of first love. So of course, a show based on an aromantic lead character will be bereft of this! I don't know why I hadn't made that connection when reading the manga, but it seems so clear now. What I want from a show is explicitly the opposite of why this show exists.

That being said, I can reevaluate the series' value in light of it opening a new world of understanding to me about aromanticism and appreciate it on those grounds even though it doesn't make my heart swell the way I would normally want an anime to. We are ultimately held at a distance from the two leads much like they hold each other at a distance. Due to this, there is a flatness and a detached quality to the writing. Yet, stylistically, this makes complete sense and when taken as a tonal choice to match the aromantic lead character's arc, actually improves the audience's capacity to relate to Yuu. 

In summary, this is a very well done show that adds a critical representation in media of an aromantic lead character. The animation is hit and miss, but there is more to like with it than to not like. The writing is more focused in the anime than the manga, and overall it is a well done show. Refocusing my expectations from yuri to exploration of another person's way of understanding the world, one that is very different than mine, made me appreciate the show much more. I give it a solid 8/10. If the animation were a bit better, it would probably rank a bit higher. This is an important show and deserves its place in the canon.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Revue Starlight has moments but doesn't completely deliver on its promise (Anime Review)

Sentai Filmworks

I had heard so many raving reviews of Revue Starlight (Sentai Filmworks) that I finally got around to watching it. It had so much promise and so many strong elements and yet, for me, didn't quite achieve all that I believe it could have. I liked it, but I didn't love it.

This 12-episode anime centers around a performing arts high school for girls. One class in each year are made of performers, training in acting, dancing, and singing. The second class are those students who work backstage, write, and direct the performances. The show's lead is Karen Aijo, a talented performer to be sure, but not currently the top in her grade.

The anime clearly borrows (in both its themes and in its central performances) from the Takarazuka Revue as well as magical girl anime, and of course also clear references and deference to Utena.

Karen is currently rooming with Mahiru who adores her, and perhaps more. However, a girl transfers in, Hikari Kagura, who grew up with Karen. It is revealed that those two made a promise to each other to become stars together after watching a performance of a live show titled "Revue Starlight" in their youth. However, Hikari went off to London to study while Karen when to Seisho Music Academy in Japan.

The arrival of Hikari sets up somewhat of a love triangle, although those elements are perhaps only in viewers' minds as there is no explicit romantic content. However, it would be hard to interpret their emotions otherwise, at least for this yuri fan.

Each grade performs a theatrical event that they work the entire year to create. But instead of changing the performance piece each year, they are required to redo it, but making it better each time, honing their skills. In their first year, they too performed the very same "Revue Starlight," a performance about two priestess, longing to be together, but who only see each other once a year at a special festival. Unfortunately, one year, they are permanently separated ending in tragedy. We meet Karen and company in year two, for their first revival of the show.

However, we are soon introduced to something bigger going on behind the scenes. The girls in the performance class are competing in a special set of metaphysical underground auditions, lead by a talking giraffe and pitting them against each other in combat. The purpose is to find the top star who will outshine all other performers and grant that person their theatrical wish. Karen is not initially invited, but crashes her way in, and with the addition of Hikari, their desire to be top stars together may not come true as only one can win in these "auditions."

For the good parts of the series, there were some really evocative visual elements to the show with overall well done animation. I LOVED Karen's transformation and how "princely" her outfit is. The pose she strikes just before being clothed in her new costume is sublime but epic (but really, ribbons covering teen nakedness - why do magical girl transformations have to involve being naked?).

Before talking about the lead characters, there are a couple of great side characters. Daiba Nana, referred to by the nickname "Banana" is by far the best. She was interesting to begin with, but what seemed like cute quirks come out as being much more complex. She has two stunning episodes mostly to herself, one of her backstory, and one focusing on her current mental state. She has really stuck with me and is an excellent part of the show.

The other side characters that stood out where Maya and Claudine, the two rivals fighting for the top spot each year. I mostly didn't care about them until the end of the series where their arc comes to a conclusion and I am so glad I stuck it out. It's a very cool pairing, the closest we get to some actual potential romantic coupling.

Now for the parts of this series that didn't quite get there. A show with all girls, with implied yuri, in the theater world, with great visuals, and heart wrenching emotions should be exactly what I love. However, it never mustered the consistent emotional intensity it could have, leaving me content to move on instead of immediately rewatching it again and again.

The show paid homage to Utena with its fight scenes but didn't have any of the romance or gender fluidity that added a depth to that show. Revue Starlight is simply a much lighter tone even though it wanted to be a serious drama. It never found the balance between its comedy and cuteness and its attempts at pathos. It was neither serious enough nor cute and funny enough, but found a somewhat bland middle ground.

There are also structural problems with the way Hikari's character is introduced. We spend so much time in the first episode seeing Karen and Mahiru's relationship as friends and roommates that I assumed they were the two leads. Hikari's introduction into the show comes with no foreshadowing.

Then when Hikari is introduced, the show spends so much time with so many side characters that it starts to feel like an ensemble show rather than about the relationship and promise between Karen and Hikari. We also don't really get enough time or depth of understanding with the two leads to genuinely care about them as people. Think of how we come to fall in love with the initially whinny and helpless Usagi in Sailor Moon. We get none of that here. We are supposed to care about Karen and Hikari, but we don't really.

The episodes also start to follow a boring pattern of spending some time in class and the dorm and practice and then the big fighting underground audition scene. Thankfully a few later episodes break this pattern up, particularly Banana's two episodes. But it is the fighting auditions I have the most problem with, and yet they are the bulk of, and kind of the point of, this show.

So these are performing artists who instead of performing in auditions of dance, drama, and voice, engage in fights with each other with weapons. Ostensibly they are singing while doing this but not really. And what does the fighting prove anyway?

There's a "male-ness" in presenting this as a show for young girls about empowerment but that bases that empowerment on physical fighting. Of course women can and do fight, compete in sports, go off to war, etc... but I just don't see the connection here between the weapon's based fighting and being the top theatrical star.

By the final episode, to resolve the whole thing, the fighting just gets ridiculous and then they add all sorts of nonsensical discussion, revelations, explanations, etc... trying to be profound. Yet, the quality of this writing is really lacking and seems more like the sort of story an 8-year-old would write (both the anime's final resolution and the Revue Starlight show-within-the-show's plot). The adult in me just couldn't tolerate the garbage nonsense coming out of their mouths in the final episode.

But these weren't the only problems I had with the show. When they were showing the girls practicing ballet, I'm not sure that the form they were exhibiting with their movements was actually very good or accurate (my sister is a professional dancer and ballet instructor). There was also some unnecessary fan service, culminating in group shower scenes which serve no purpose other than lasciviousness.

Before you disagree, I get that there is a parallel between Revue Starlight (the show within the show - about the priestesses torn apart) and Karen and Hikari's story. But that doesn't mean that either story is very good or emotionally resonant.  And the talking giraffe leading the secret underground auditions is just unnecessarily random. Why couldn't it have been an ambiguous person, maybe even one of the characters from the future, or a former performer, or the spirit of theater, or something?

And yet...Revue Starlight had many many great moments as well. It was also fairly ambitious, if not quite ambitious enough. I would love to have seen what a tortured soul of a writer could have brought to the concept. Imagine if Hideaki Anno wrote and directed it?! More than anything, it was Banana's arc that has stuck with me. There was some profound sadness there and some heartbreak but also growth. She was a complex character even in the limited screen-time she had throughout the series.

So I certainly liked this show, despite my many criticism, but I just didn't love it. It was well worth watching and I almost wonder what a second watch might add to it. It tried some things, it was certainly different than most of the stuff out there this past year, and I'm glad for that. Visually it was well done and the voice acting was top notch. All considered, despite it's many flaws, it still gets a 7/10.

UPDATE: Here's a great alternative look at the series from Anime Feminist and an important message it sends counter to common narrative tropes in queer media: on Anime Feminist

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Monday, January 7, 2019

Shortcake Cake Volume 1 is just different enough (Manga Review)

Ten Serizawa
Shortcake Cake volume 1 (by the duo suu Morishita and published by Shojo Beat/Viz) is the story of Ten Serizawa who lives a two hour bus ride away from the regional high-school. After taking the bus for a while, a friend who lives in a boarding house near the school invites her to spend the night. Ten meets the other residents and finds that she likes both the company and the extra time each day. With that, she asks her mom for permission and moves into the boarding house.

This is the story of Ten, a first-year high-schooler, and two young men: everyone's love interest Chiaki (who is oblivious to girls and LOVES books) and Riku (who loves all girls, but won't date any of them until he finds the girl that can make him forget all others).

Ten is presented as a fairly normal, capable, young woman. She is both kind and speaks her mind. She seems mildly interested in Chiaki, while Riku becomes interested in her. Chiaki, well, it's unclear for now, but there are hints he might be aware of Ten as well. Both male characters are also interesting in that they are subtly different than our typical male love interests in shoujo.

The plot itself consists of Ten's first sleep over, her early days in the boarding house, and a group trip on the weekend to explore the local town. What makes this story work is the balanced tone. Ten seems normal, her life before high-school seems normal, there is no obvious tragedy, she's just a kid like anyone else. That could be boring, but here, it's actually nice to not have baggage and crisis right from the beginning. But it's also combined with her being a generally capable person. Unlike many shoujo where the girl is presented as one of several stereotypes 1) the ditzy, below-average student or 2) the brilliant nerdy student who is secretly beautiful, here we get a very typical young woman.

Also for balance, while there is some hint that Riku has a complex backstory, it also doesn't appear that it will be overly dramatic. Yet, with all this normalcy, the story isn't boring because the characters are likable, it isn't dwelling only on romance, and we get to hear each character's inner thoughts. This isn't told from any one point of view, but is really a third-person story. It has a great overall feel, relaxed, but still forward moving with characters that are appealing.

The art is okay. It's somewhere between a strict realist shoujo style and the currently prevalent moe styles. It's realistic with just a bit more cuteness in the features. It's fairly simple art compared to some, with deep blacks, and lots of single-toned shading. It isn't a complex use of screentones, but there is some depth.

Overall, this was an enjoyable, if not earth-shattering first volume. Because the characters are likable and there were no warning signs of objectionable content, it's easy to see myself picking up the next volume. I am curious which boy she might end up with (if either) and that's more than I can say about other series which have left me bored right from the beginning. I'm giving this volume a 7/10 as a nice entry to what seems like a fairly calm and normal shoujo romance. That's not a bad thing at all.

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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Dreamin' Sun Volume 1 isn't as good as that "Orange" one (Manga Review)

Kameko Shimana
Sorry (not sorry) for the silly, rhyming, headline, but I picked up Dreamin' Sun Volume 1 (by Ichigo Takano and published by Seven Seas) for two reasons: 1) I loved, LOVED "Orange" (also by Takano-sensei) and 2) the cover art is great (love the style, love the color pallet - which is actually slightly more subdued and a bit warmer in tone in real life). Sadly, I was only luke-warm on the story so far but the art does continue to be great at least. I missed this when it first started publication, so it's a 2017 release I'm just getting to now.

"Dreamin' Sun" is the story of Kameko Shimana who runs away from home and ends up living in a house with a few other high-school boys and the twenty-something-year-old landlord. I'm not going to do much more of a summary here, 1) because there isn't much more, and 2) because I'd rather pick apart some of the key story elements one by one.

First, this starts off looking like it will be another shoujo where the main female character comes from an abusive household with an absent father and a mean stepmother. I'm just getting a bit bored/over this trope (even though some of my favorite shoujo comes with that as the background - see "Twinkle Stars" - although no one does emotionally abusive family like Takaya-sensei!). Thankfully, this part of the storyline is actually wrapped up by the end of the first volume and it seems like the need to run away was mostly due to poor communication and teenage drama (mixed with grieving about her dead mother...dun dun dun...I smell some plot with this later as there is a link to her car accident with the landlord's dad who prosecuted the killer). But, she makes up with her family in the fourth chapter, so that's not going to drive the story.

Then we get the love-at-first-sight story with Asahi, a guy who wears a slightly nerdy persona at school but is a hottie at home. I don't know that I really care about this relationship, it feels more like a visual infatuation by Kameko than actual deep romantic interest. To look at the difference between how Takaya-sensei develops feelings between people slowly in series like "Twinkle Stars" and "Fruits Basket" and then compare it to the: "Oh he's hot and nice therefore I love him forever" type story, "Dreamin' Sun" seems to fall into the later trope.

HOWEVER, I'm hopeful that this pairing is only a small placeholder and that Kameko will actually come to realize that a guy named Zen, who also lives in the house, is actually a better match for her. He's silly and weird, and kind, and goofy and I just like his character so much more. Also, Asahi is crushing on a girl who already has a boyfriend, so there's the whole "I like a guy who likes someone else who likes someone else" trope that I'm pretty tired of too. I bet Takano-sensei knows this and I have a good feeling the Kameko x Asahi thing isn't the real meat of this story in the long run. We'll see.

Kameko is a more-or-less ordinary high-school girl. The time in the house with the two boys and the landlord is basically domestic comedy. It's fine, nothing special or unique, but that's okay. Overall, the only real plot is: Kameko runs away, decides to live with three guys, makes up with her family but stays living with the guys. Oh, a lunch is made, a kick-boxing class in the living room happens, Zen wears a panda outfit, etc... but nothing happens that we can call plot. All of that is okay too. I just can't get a handle yet on what type of series this is. Will it be a coming of age? Is it a romance? Is it a slice of life? Is it a deep introspective, torturous emotional journey? Dunno.

The art is great. Very much the style I like for shoujo with more or less realistic people with long thin limbs (not the moe stuff that seems to dominate a lot these days). Also, lots of screen toned sparkles in the air (that's my JAM!). If you liked the art in "Orange" you'll like this, but also, it reminds me quite a bit of Io Sakisaka's art in "Ao Haru Ride/Blue Spring Ride" which I love.

AND... there in lies the heart of what I'm feeling about "Dreamin' Sun" volume 1. Whereas "Ao Haru Ride" presents a strong emotional core right from the beginning, hooking you on its two main characters and their eventual journey, "Dreamin' Sun" volume 1 is just sort of...nice. I don't care one way or another. If I don't pick up the next volume, I'll probably forget about Kameko in a day or two. That's not a great start if it's meant to be a character piece. I get that for comedy series or slice of life series that we may not have that deep emotional attachment to the characters, but given the narrative excellence and character development in "Orange," I was expecting more here.

I'm a bit heartbroken to give "Dreamin Sun" volume 1 only a 6/10 for the first volume. There is nothing wrong with it. It's just made of a couple simple tropes, with great art, but characters that don't create immediate interest or empathy with the reader. I'm really torn about investing in future volumes. It certainly won't be a purchasing priority over other series I'm currently reading. It's perfectly pleasant though, and if the basic story I've described seems like what you're jonesing for, then by all means, go for it. I'll keep you posted if I decide to read more volumes.

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