8/23/2008

Honey and Clover Vol 1-2

Honey and Clover volume 1 by Chica Umino.
I've been meaning to post this for some time. But you know, life gets in the way.

Honey and Clover sticks out amongst the various shojo manga translated into English. Creator Chica Umino draws in a scratchy pen and ink style, restrained in use of screentones and other effects, with minimal backgrounds. It almost like reading a sequentially arranged sketchbook. Most pages deviate wildly from the 4 panel or 6 panel grid - Umino can't seem to draw a normal square panel, as most are either tilted, warped, overlapping, or sent bleeding of the page. Sometimes they can seem overcrowded with many little word balloons and captions. This can look like it might be rather confusing, but fortunately the story isn't particularly difficult to follow. The characters themselves are appealingly cartoony and have an appearance of almost childlike innocence. The whole manga feels like it's set in a dreamlike world, seen through the eyes of an adult looking back on his naive youth. If there's any weakness to Umino's character design, it's that at times they appear to be a little too flat and simplified to stand out from the background.

Set in a Tokyo art school, the reader is introduced to the cast through the point of view character Yūta Takemoto, a second year student. The comic's episodic structure focuses on Yūta's peer group, and the one professor who manages to get dragged along to their various excursions. The comedy is derived from how they deal with the typical worries over money (They're impoverished college kids after all), getting enough protein to eat, partying, getting drunk, dealing with the holiday blues, working on assignments, passing courses, graduating, getting a job after graduation, and falling in love. It's all mundane slice-of-life material. But while the early humor never disappears, the tone of the story becomes increasingly bittersweet as the focus gradually turns more to the love lives of the cast. By the end of the 2nd volume, the two main love triangles are established, which presumably will dominate the proceedings of the rest of the series.

Both love triangles feature insecure males being drawn to emotionally traumatized females. On the one hand we have nice guy Yūta and talented Shinobu Morita falling for figure Hagu Hanamoto. Some readers are no doubt going to find their attraction to Hagu somewhat disturbing, as this 18 year old looks like someone ten years younger. She even behaves in an infantile way, playing with dolls, talking in simple phrases, walking around with a constantly distracted expression. But this combination of youthful appearance and prodigious talent has isolated her from the rest of her peers, which isn't helped by the overprotectiveness of her guardian, professor Shūji Hanamoto. While Yūta lacks the self-confidence to express his love directly, Shinobu expresses his by simultaneously bullying her into modeling for him while trying to outdo her as an artistic rival.

Honey and Clover volume 2 by Chica Umino.
The 2nd, more "adult", love triangle has senior student Takumi Mayama chasing after older woman Rika Harada while being pursued by Ayumi "Ironman" Yamada. Rika is a widow badly scarred by an accident which also took her husband's life. While Rika is quiet and emotionally withdrawn, Ayumi is outgoing and energetic. She's pretty and intelligent. She's a star pupil with her own instant fan club. Takumi ignores her for Rika, whom he works for part time at her design firm. But this doesn't stop her from confessing her love. Rika, on the other hand, has exhibited little interest in getting involved with anyone since her husband's death.

There are some other threads like Yūta's uneasy relationship with his stepfather, or Shinobu's unexplained absences. It's clear that he's involved in a scheme that's unrelated to the rest of the cast. But the interactions of the students are the central concern of the story. For all the youthfulness of that cast, the overall mood is one of nostalgic longing. Towards the end of vol. 2 Hagu goes out looking for a four-leaf clover. She is joined by Yūta, and eventually the rest of the gang. After an afternoon of fruitless searching, they settle down for a meal with professor Hanamoto. As they eat Yūta looks at the faces of his friends and thinks "I know the day will come...when all of this is past, and it all becomes a memory. But I know I'll remember it, over and over...That blue sky and the smell of the wind and the endless carpet of clover."

Ah, was I ever that ruminative?

8/03/2008

Some Thoughts on The Dark Knight

So I finally got around to seeing The Dark Knight yesterday, perhaps this summer's (Or where I am now, winter's) most anticipated movie, partly because of Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. And it's a justifiably praised performance. Overall the cast is generally so strong I didn't mind the weaknesses in the plot some reviewers have criticized the film for. Ledger's Joker is easily the most chilling onscreen adaption of the character I've ever seen. His hunched gait, shy expression, and slurred speech belie the evil this man is capable of - And then he jams a pencil up someone's f@&%. Aaron Eckhart's farmboy good looks complement his performance as do-gooder DA Harvey Dent. Maggie Gyllenhaal is an actual improvement over Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. Returning cast members Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman are all good.

Anton Furst's highly stylized set designs for the Tim Burton Batman films have become so influential that it's something of a shock to see a real city skyline stand in for the fictional Gotham. The Spider-Man franchise was shot in the actual New York City, and that reflects the Marvel Comics approach of setting their characters in real cities. But DC's many fictional metropolises are fantasy fun-houses of adventure that mirror the personas of its super-hero residents. In The Dark Knight, Gotham is shot as a gritty decaying urban environment exuding gloomy elegance. Its muted realism eschews the gothic surrealism of most current comic book interpretations of the city.

Some reviewers, like Douglas Wolk writing for Salon, have criticized this version of Batman for not being brilliant enough. He's supposed to be fiendishly clever - The world's greatest detective and the most dangerous man in the world. Instead this Bruce Wayne/Batman (Played by Christian Bale) depends heavily on Lucius Fox to supply him with technological solutions to various problems, like James Bond does with Q. I find myself not particularly concerned about this issue. Batman's super-proficiency is a necessary compensating trait when working with the much more powerful teammates of the Justice League, and it's what keeps him a viable denizen of the DC Universe after more than sixty years. But I like my heroes (Like the relatively inexperienced character in Batman Year One) expressing some vulnerability. And this version of the DC franchise doesn't have to worry about taking down a rogue Superman, yet.