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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