Princess Princess Vol. 1

Princess Princess Vol. 1 by Mikiyo Tsuda.
One of the salutary features of the manga industry is the equal-opportunity nature of it's emotional manipulation. If the cute is designed to elicit a nurturing, protective response from the male audience, then the androgynous is meant to engender similar feelings in female readers. In both cases there is a tendency to idealize the emotional and physical vulnerability of the character in question while eschewing sexually explicit displays associated with and . This might seem confusing to the non-fan, but the idea behind moe is that the reader offers support to the character from the sidelines rather than becoming actively involved with the character.

What all this means is that Princess Princess is a manga for teenage girls to fantasize about attractive boys without having to worry about competition from other girls, or having to deal with something icky like actual sex. An elite all-boys school develops an unusual custom to counteract the low morale caused by the lack of female students - recruit the prettiest incoming freshmen to cosplay in women's dresses during various school events. This tradition is carried-out by the ubiquitous and Machiavellian . Rather than organize the usual co-ed events with other schools, this is what they come up with?

If this were the real world these cross-dressers, called princesses, would be constantly harassed and beaten-up. Instead they are adored by the presumably heterosexual male students who perfectly comprehend that they're staring at other males. In order to maintain the illusion, a look but no touch policy is strictly enforced - The princesses live in separate dorms, use separate facilities, and are closely protected from any unwanted contact. Basically they're treated like pop idols. But while the protagonists are being mobbed by fans, no hint of indiscretion takes place at all. The reader expecting a darker psychological undercurrent or looking for an exploration of transgender issues will come away disappointed. It is just silly dress-up fun. After some initial hesitation, main character Toru Kouno, along with Yujiro Shihoudani, eagerly volunteers to be a princess once he learns of the generous perks that come with the position. Together they mercilessly tease Mikoto Yutaka, the only student who feels he was forced into the role, as well as the only one with an actual girlfriend.

This review is based on volume one of the series, but a significant drawback was the lack of foreword movement in the story. Most of the book was spent on exposition: Describing the school, the characters and the premise. There are an unfortunate amount of talking heads and large speech balloons, and not enough variety in the art to make-up for the monotonous arrangement. Mikiyo Tsuda places her figures in the mid-ground, and mostly avoids drawing backgrounds, making it difficult to place them in any context. The plot moves so slowly that it's more than halfway through the volume before any cross-dressing actually takes place, and there isn't nearly enough of it. Good dialogue could have benefited the story. But unfortunately the rather long-winded descriptions undercut most of the attempts at humor.

These are the awkward early chapters of what may, or may not turn out to be, a good comedy series. With the exposition now out of the way, the story better get moving.


Death Note Culture Shock

Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata.
(This post has spoilers)

On the whole I found Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's supernatural thriller Death Note to be a pretty entertaining read. Light Yagami's crusade to rid the world of all crime by becoming the ultimate criminal is appropriately naive and grandiose - Just the kind of thing a pampered, bored, know-it-all teenager with a messiah complex would think of if granted the powers of a god. So the ending when he finally gets what's coming to him is deeply satisfying to my inner curmudgeon. But I was taken out of the story early on when the character of Naomi Misora was introduced - A former FBI agent retiring to marry Raye Penber, the agent assigned to investigate Light. They're using the case as an opportunity to visit her parents in Japan. She's clearly smarter than her would-be husband. But her astute observations and pointed questions are dismissed by Raye with a condescending "You're just my fiancee. You're not an agent anymore..." (That's right! Know your place woman! Hurry up and serve me my goddamn coffee!) She apologizes and drops the subject.

Granted that the traditional behavior of the Japanese woman is to stop working when they marry in order to devote their time to raising a family, and that this is a Japanese comic. But in spite of their Japanese background, I couldn't help wondering why a couple who live and work in the United States would choose to honor that custom. At the very least Naomi's diffidence to Raye just seemed odd for someone who rose through the ranks of the FBI.

After Raye's death (Feel like listening to your fiancee now buddy? I know I'm a jerk) Naomi attempts to contact the Japanese police, but is intercepted by Light. They spar verbally, but Light gets the better of her, and sends Naomi to her presumed death. This off-panel death was very frustrating as it seemed that the creators were eliminating a potentially interesting character, and part of me considered the possibility of her surviving her murder. I guess I've been conditioned by years of watching Hollywood movies to not accept offscreen deaths as real.

This demise is repeated later with the much more prominent character Misa Amane, the epitome of the : , short, perky, childish, a moe gothic lolita, and dumb as a brick. Sure she shows early signs of brilliance, but she quickly abandons independent thought after her first face-to-face meeting with Light. Her off-panel death isn't part of the story, but told in a special volume after the conclusion of the story (Light also charms the more intelligent but still gullible Kiyomi Takada before executing her in spectacular fashion).

These are minor issues which did not stop me from enjoying the comic, but it was enough of a jolt to help remind me of the divide between me and the average Japanese reader. I'm off course constantly aware of these cultural differences, but there was something a little jarring about otherwise competent female characters taking a back seat to the alpha males in Death Note.


I Hate Valentine's Day...

But I'm a sucker for a good love story, and this one's a real gem: Self-confessed Anglophile Kaoru Mori's exquisitely drawn comic Emma is her own love letter to Great Britain. Can romantically linked couple Emma and William ever truly be together? Kept apart by tradition and unsure they would ever see each other again, their sudden, unexpected, reunion is bittersweet:

Emma Volume 4 by Kaoru Mori, published by CMX Manga.
Emma Volume 4 by Kaoru Mori, published by CMX Manga.
Emma Volume 4 by Kaoru Mori, published by CMX Manga.
Emma Volume 4 by Kaoru Mori, published by CMX Manga.
Emma Volume 4 by Kaoru Mori, published by CMX Manga.
What a great moment: An instantaneous outflowing of emotion after many chapters of quiet restraint and separation.


Shortcomings (Optic Nerve #9-11)

Optic Nerve #9 by Adriane Tomine. Optic Nerve #10 by Adriane Tomine. Optic Nerve #11 by Adriane Tomine.

Ben Tanaka is the latest maladjusted protagonist from Optic Nerve creator Adriane Tomine. He's the Japanese-American manager of an indie movie theater in Berkeley, California, and claims that race plays no importance to his identity. In contrast his girlfriend Miko Hayashi treats race as a cornerstone of her life - She helps organize a local Asian-American film festival. Lately, their relationship is in a rut. Ben can't hide his contempt for the high-minded, sentimental, drivel that wins the festival prize. During the ride home he unloads all his venom on her:

Optic Nerve by Adriane Tomine.
His hypocrisy is exposed when Miko discovers his porn collection and notices that Ben nurtures a hidden attraction for blonde, white women, which he vehemently denies. But when she later leaves for New York for an internship, he makes several vain attempts to fulfill those fantasies. Still he can't stop pointing-out the usual Asian stereotypes. Can't this guy shut-up for one moment?

Optic Nerve by Adriane Tomine.
Ben is prick: Unable to face his own shortcomings, he acts superior to everyone and won't give anyone any leeway. The only person who can stand him is Korean-American graduate student Alice Kim, a serial-dating lesbian. When he's around her, he's at least a little more relaxed, and even a little funny. He's even willing to be her beard to present to her disapproving parents - a Japanese boyfriend being far more acceptable than discovering she's gay.

Optic Nerve by Adriane Tomine.
Shortcomings is Tomine's most ambitious work to date. It's his most explicit attempt to tackle the social issues of ethnicity, sexuality, and social status. Unlike his colleague Daniel Clowes, he eschews flights of surrealism for an unadorned, formal-realist style laid out in a nine-panel grid. It's so cold and objective, and has its share of detractors. It probably doesn't help that his subject-matter is about self-absorbed twenty-thirty somethings. And Ben Tanaka is a rather loathsome character. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tempted more than once to punch him in the face. But for those looking for an honest, understated, unsentimental slice-of-life storytelling, this is Tomine's most mature and personal work.


Strawberry 100% Vol. 1-3

Strawberry 100% Vol. 1 by Mizuki Kawashita. Strawberry 100% Vol. 2 by Mizuki Kawashita. Strawberry 100% Vol. 3 by Mizuki Kawashita. 

 There's nothing like a good to while away the time. At least that's what I thought when I had the sudden urge to buy the first three volumes of Mizuki Kawashita's teen romance Strawberry 100%. The plot is as simple as it is unlikely: Male student Junpei Manaka develops a bizarre obsession with strawberry-patterned panties after crashing into a girl wearing them while on the school roof (the narrative's first ), which leads him to becoming acquainted with an assortment of gorgeous females all way above his league, but nonetheless all inexplicably attracted to him. As always happens in these stories, the male protagonist is too indecisive (and too immature) to make up his mind on who he really likes. Will it be the school's most popular girl Tsukasa Nishino? Brainy wallflower Aya Tojo (the most likely to have bumped into Manaka)? Or outspoken and athletic Satsuki Kitaoji? Like any successful series (it went on for three years in Japan) it's a sure bet it will drag-out its basic premise just long enough for every heroine's inevitable fan-following to grow to violently hate the competition.

The is relatively tame: There's a lot of ogling at uplifted skirts and unbuttoned shirts, but nothing that approaches the level of Ken Akamatsu's more well-known manga. While appropriately attractive, Kawashita's style is not particularly kinetic. This isn't a daring or unconventional take on the genre. But if you like your romantic comedies more laid-back, then Strawberry 100% is a suitably pleasant diversion.


I Dream of Yotsuba&!

Yotsuba&! is a fiendishly cute manga by Kiyohiko Azuma, the one palatable moe artist. - Shaenon K. Garrity

The impression left from reading the comics blogs is that Yotsuba&! is the greatest domestic comedy this side of the Ocean, and who am I to argue with their collective wisdom? Actually I'm addicted to Yotsuba&! I go through withdrawal every time I finish reading a volume. Seriously, when's the next one coming out? I'm dying out here.

Anyway, I was thinking about the subject of moe and whether it can be connected to Yotsuba&! I suppose creator Kiyohiko Azuma could be accused of a certain regressive obsession with the juvenile and the . His previous work Azumanga Daioh focussed on the interactions of several adolescent girls, while in Yotsuba&! he goes back to early childhood. Both works tend to focus on the parts that people remember fondly when looking back on life. But there's a bittersweet quality to Azuma's nostalgia - a certain recognition of the passage of time and the ephemeral nature of youth. It doesn't undermine the serene lightness, but it gives the comedy just enough of an emotional edge that nicely deepens the overall effect.

Yotsuba& 1
There is something about the Yotsuba&! household that targets the seinen demographic: Mister Koiwai, A single, unattached, adult male, goes overseas and brings back a cute orphan girl. Notice the lack of romantic complications with another adult to come between them. But Yotsuba doesn't act like some cloying, sentimental image of a child, nor does she possess the usual cliches designed to appeal to some otaku fetish: She's not a robot, maid, magical girl, or an alien, as far as we know. She doesn't have any affectations or strange vulnerabilities calculated to evoke a protective response outside of her age and innocence. Her unexplained background, odball behavior, ignorance of certain aspects of Japanese culture, as well as her dad's laid-back parenting style do imply there's more to her than Koiwai is letting on. But otherwise the two behave a lot like any single father and adoptive daughter would behave given the circumstances.

Yotsuba& 4
Kiyohiko Azuma's cartooning style is slick enough to appeal to the general audience, but clean and simple enough not to appear too saccharine. He cleverly modulates his characters' renditions based on their age: Yotsuba's cartoonish appearance perfectly reflects her hyperactive personality, while the grown-ups are drawn with greater realism. Yotsuba's neighbors the Ayase sisters fall somewhere in between. In comparison, the girls in Barasui's similarly-styled comedy Strawberry Marshmallow come across as all too precious. And even that's pretty restrained next to the fan-service heavy male/female "sibling" relationship in Chokotto's Sister. The moe mind-set means going deep into very creepy territory in order to scratch that itch.

Yotsuba& 2

But Yotsuba inhabits a perfectly mundane world capably rendered by Azuma (or his assistants?). There's not much in it that most adults would find interesting. But when filtered through Yotsuba's largely uninformed point of view...

Yotsuba& 3
Awww...now ain't she the cutest?