Monday, April 27, 2020

Fragtime - not what I'd call yuri (Omnibus Manga Review)

Two teen girls in uniforms inside an hour glass
Fragtime (Omnibus) - 3.5/10 (*see full scoring rubric below)

Fragtime (Seven Seas) is pretty much the type of yuri I don't like: a shallow understanding of the inner lives of women mixed with fan service that serves no meaningful emotional or plot purpose and instead is just for the titillation of men. This is a review of the omnibus re-release.

Moritani is a high school girl who can stop time for three minutes each day. She uses this in order to escape uncomfortable social situations. As a result of this ability, she hasn't learned social skills and she hasn't learned coping mechanisms, all she knows is how to be alone and run away.

But Moritani's popular classmate, Murikami, is immune to the stoppage of time and begins to use Moritani's abilities to serve her own needs. Thus begins the manipulative, emotionally damaging, and not at all believable "romance" between these two as they both work to heal and learn to be better people. Sort of. Actually, I wish that description fit it better. It wants to be that story, but it really is just an excuse to see girls in underwear and pretend like the author understands the complexity of young women's thinking.


Fragtime opens with Moritani peeping at Murikami's underwear when she thinks Murikami is frozen in time. So right off the bat, we know what type of story this is and who it caters to. Because, BTW, peeping is obviously morally and ethically wrong.  Not only is it wrong, but the vast (VAST) majority of people would never violate someone in this way even if they could stop time.

It would be temping to say that boys might try something like this, but I really think that the majority of them wouldn't do that either. We know it's wrong, we've been told it's wrong. It lacks any sort of consent. And I really doubt that Moritani would do this, especially considering that in many other opportunities she shows what high moral character she has (not cheating on tests, protecting another friend from ridicule, etc...). But I bet the boys who like this sort of story "think" that girls secretly want to peek at each other and get excited by it. Yuck.

But of course, Murikami is not frozen. Moritani is mortified but confesses that she uses her power to get away from social situations, and that while doing so she often likes to watch secret liasons between people. So now, it's not just Moritani peeping at Murikami, she's actually watching as others secretly make out and stuff like that all around school.

As a result of being found out, Moritani promises anything to Murikami if she'll keep it a secret. Murikami snaps up this opportunity and proceeds to make Moritani use it for various nefarious purposes, often by tricking Moritani. When she isn't outright tricking her, she's using various emotional manipulation techniques to keep Moritani linked to her and following her lead.

As the worlds leading armchair psychologist (warning, I am NOT a psychologist), I'm going to diagnose Murikami with borderline personality disorder. Her actions throughout the series eventually gets played off as though she's really just insecure and unable to connect with others, but I don't buy that explanation. She is manipulative, exposes her underwear in public on multiple occasions, wears multiple "faces" to play to what she wants from others, and just generally controls those around her, especially Moritani.

In one moment she's petulant, another she's doting on Moritani, another she's ignoring her, another she's batting her eyelashes pleading for help, another she's exposing her underwear, another she's angry, another she's conspiring, another she's flirting with Moritani, another she kisses Moritani so she'll forget why she's upset at Murikami, another she's accusing a teacher of molesting her, another time she's faking that he's molesting her so she can steal test scores (so sadly the potential that she's being molested and the harm of that, and thus the need to confront that abuse, is undermined because we have no idea if it is true or not), and on and on. She wants to control when Moritani uses her power and "won't forgive her" if she doesn't consult with Murikami before using it. Even when Moritani finally asks her out, Murikami just says: "Sure, if you'll do me a favor." Yuck.

She's bad news and in need of serious psychological supports. And it is totally possible for a writer to craft a meaningful story about a person with borderline personality disorder. I can remember an essay by a father talking about raising his daughter through that type of deep psychological need. It can be an incredibly devastating diagnosis and can take a lifetime of significant supports. It is worthy of careful and thoughtful depictions. But this isn't that story. It isn't an honest or authentic exploration of what it means to go through life with borderline personality disorder. Instead, her manipulative and "random" personality is just a device to make Murikami seem edgy to male readers as part of the fantasy. She isn't a real person at all. No one in this series is.

There are attempts to humanize Murikami. It turns out the other girls don't really like her and she's aware of it. But she chooses to ignore that knowledge and hang out with them anyway. It's somewhere between keeping your enemies close and trying desperately to belong. That could have been a meaningful plot to explore. But alas, it isn't in any way a main focal point after it is introduced about a third of the way through. We briefly come back to it in the coda, but it doesn't all tie together in a meaningful way.

Moritani does have somewhat of an arc, where she does learn to interact with people better, and as she connects with people more, her need to stop time and her ability to stop time fade. She makes an actual friend, someone who is genuinely nice to her. She stands up for her morals on more than one occasion (which again makes the peeping make less sense other than as the "meet cute"/fan service). She also experiences jealousy and many new feelings that she has to learn to process through. That's good and all. But it doesn't make up for the overall lack of delicacy in this story nor the overall exploitative nature of the story and the fan service.

For all the manipulation and junk from Murikami, instead of critically examining how that is harming Moritani, how that is not a safe relationship, it just doesn't go deep with it at all. There are a few times where Moritani asks herself the questions we are asking, but each time she resolves her own worry by coming back to: "but I love her." It wants us to want them together even though it's clearly an abusive relationship. The story wants us to fantasize about Murikami because she's the crazy bad-ass. But failing to critically examine how her manipulation is harmful to Moritani and limiting for Murikami's own life is weak writing. You could say that deep exploration of meaningful emotions isn't the point of this comic. To which I'll say you're right, the point is clearly turning young boys on by fantasizing about two girls and lacy underwear (a lot of it).

The art is pretty typical shounen with some moe aspects and lots of fan service. Do you want to see high-school girls lifting up their skirts to show you their underwear? Do you want to see them taking off their shirts? Great, then you'll have plenty of opportunities here. On the other hand, if you're like me, you feel there is no need for nudity or exposure of one's underwear if it does not meaningfully serve character development or the story. In that case, you will be bothered by the totally unnecessary fan service and the setups for them.

Some will argue that each of those episodes of Murikami showing her underwear serve a narrative aspect in her story. I say they're just cheap visual thrills and each of those scenes could have been written with an entirely different incident that would equally highlight her psychological makeup without needing teen underwear. There is no point to it other than titillation and lazy writing. There would be much more meaningful ways to explore the risk taking or other aspects of Murikami's personality without the underwear.

There's an underlying decent story somwhere in here, of how running away by stopping time has stunted someone's emotional growth and maturity and that by finally making a connection with someone else they build the skills to interact with others while also losing the ability (and the need) to stop time. Sadly, this is so minimally explored (even though she begins losing her ability about 1/3 of the way through). In fact, when she finally tells Murikami about it (after she's been worrying Murikami will dumb her ass now that she's losing her power), Murikami just shrugs it off. And so while the audience knows that she's losing her power just as she's making real connections, that doesn't seem to be the main takeaway from the story.

In addition, all the fan service and emotionally manipulative personalities make it hard to like Fragtime's characters at all. The romance doesn't feel genuine at any point, in fact it feels abusive, and it makes it hard to root for them to get together. They are both immature and one is not a nice person. If you want a great love story about the devastating affects of stopping time, then watch "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time." It is a masterpiece of a film. Fragtime is pretty much just garbage.

And finally, it's so hard for me to call this yuri. I'm not the yuri police. I don't get to be a gatekeeper and decide what is and isn't yuri. But if I'm being honest, I really think yuri should be focused on female readers as it should be exploring relationships between women and the authentic experiences of women who like women (even if over-dramatized and overwrought - I'm looking at you Marimite - my fav!). Therefore, I'd like it to have some realistic understanding of the interior lives of women and present them as human beings, not sex objects or stock characters designed to please men's voyeuristic or misogynistic needs. So while Fragtime is probably considered yuri, at least by American standards, I'm calling it a stain on the genre! Can't wait for the comments to roll in on that statement! (Reminder, we each get to have opinions. You are very much allowed to like things I don't like, and vice versa. I'm very curious if there are people who liked this series and why, so feel free to let me know what you got out of it)

Anyway, I'm giving Fragtime a 3.5/10 for missed opportunities, lots of fan service, superficial understanding of women's experiences, and an emotionally manipulative lead character where there isn't any critical exploration of the harm of that abusive personality.


*SCORING RUBRIC
BASIC SCORE:
  • Story interesting (0-10): 5 - there really isn't much story. It has an interesting premise, and potential to explore deep and meaningful things, but then it doesn't. It fake addresses them without any real depth or consequence.
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 4 - not really. They're both pretty stock. Moritani is the nice wall-flower and Murikami is the manic pixie dream girl. Yawn.
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 5 - some moments work, others don't.
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 4 - I really can't see how most of what either of them do or feel makes any real sense. It is supposed to feel big and emotional and like real teens figuring life out, but it is actually pretty hollow and lacks real exploration.
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 4.5/10

BONUS POINTS:
  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): 0 - nope, lots of missed opportunities though
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): 0 - no, these are not lesbians. Who knows what they are other than fantasy objects for immature boys.
  • Female agency (0-5): 0 - it looks like Murikami's secret activities during Moritani's time stoppages are supposed to be evidence of her striking back against the people who don't understand her. But I think that's a poorly written justification for all the open manipulation of Moritani and others.
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 2 - at least Moritani makes some real changes throughout the series.
  • Quality art (0-5): 0 - it's fine (other than the fan service), but nothing special.
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +0 (I don't award quarter points)

PENALTY POINTS:
  • Homophobic/transphobic (0-5): 0
  • Misogynistic (0-5): 2 - I have to deduct points because it doesn't represent these young women as real people at all. It's a superficial idea of what girls think and are experiencing in high-school without real insight. Instead, it's all fan service and warped personalities. It's giving men who read this permission to view women like this in a way that is not authentic. 
  • Fan service (0-5): 2 - lots and lots and lots of panty shots. An obsession with lacy ones.
  • Child/adult relationship (0-5): 1 - hard to know where the author stands on this one. Murikami seems to be a victim but also uses the "abuse" she may or may not be experiencing by the teacher to manipulate others. That could be a sign of her own trauma, or it could be bad writing. Who knows with this mess of a story. The point deduction is for not making it clear that teachers shouldn't be touching kids and we need to take it seriously.
  • Exploitative (0-5): 3 - the whole thing feels exploitative in so many ways. 
PENALTY POINTS (-sum/2): -4

FINAL SCORE: Well, if I'm going by my rubric, then it would score a .5/10, not five out of ten but POINT 5 out of 10. Yikes. I think that is a little too harsh, even for this trashy story. I'm going to give it a 3.5/10 because that feels about right for it. Guess my rubric isn't perfect, but you know what, nothing is, especially this mess of a manga.

🚺

Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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