Friday, July 6, 2012

An Assortment of Newer Manga - June 2012

零(Rei) is 'zero' in Japanese
I’ve been enjoying 3-gatsu no Lion (March Comes in Like a Lion) for some time now.  The mangaka (UMINO Chika) is the same one who did the excellent josei Honey and Clover, but the material couldn’t be much more different.  There may well have been some editorial hand-wringing about her choice of subject matter this time: she has changed both publishers (from Shueisha to Hakusensha - in their flagship monthly Young Animal) and target markets (from josei to seinen).

Rei's life is intertwined with shogi.
It's a bold move - most mangakas can't easily jump across the market boundaries like this without writing under a pseudonym.  Likewise, an author with a huge hit like Honey and Clover (adapted into two seasons of excellent anime by J.C. Staff) to her name would naturally be a desirable commodity to a publisher.  It appears that 3-gatsu was just too different from H&C for Shueisha to be willing to shoulder the risk.  I think it's their loss, and that the editors at Young Animal deserve praise for taking the risk on a famous josei mangaka writing about a young man in a very male world.  Umino obviously had latched onto this subject and would not be dissuaded.

...but he's learned that shogi success does not equal happiness.
How different is it from Honey and Clover? This time college life is nowhere to be seen: our main character (桐山 零 KIRIYAMA Rei) is a 17 year old high school boy and professional shogi champion.  It is indeed a very male world: female professional shogi players have only been admitted since 2006.

The sample spreads at right and left are the first shogi match in the manga.  The intercuts and motion lines do a fine job of putting dynamism and emotional context into what would otherwise be two guys sitting still playing shogi.  Umino's skill really shows here - it's not easy material to illustrate and yet the art saves us from something that could easily be technical and dull.  Note also the distinct lack of explanation.  If you understand shogi, great.  If you don't, no big deal - the story isn't about shogi, but about Rei, and his life. His opponent here is his adoptive father, with whom he has a complex relationship and who will lose a ranking in the ladder because of his loss to rising pro Rei.

Rei is also pretty much an emotional basket case.  I’ve always been interested in the how and why of child stars (artistic or athletic) who do or don’t achieve success in the transition to adulthood.  Children will do nearly anything for love and affirmation from parents, but at some point (typically age 15-18) stage mothering quits working and the young star must find his own motivation to go forward in the world.  A successful transition results in someone like Wil Wheaton, Mary Lou Retton, or Scott Hamilton – maybe they stay in their childhood field of endeavor, maybe they don’t, but they’re getting along in the world and presumably doing what they want to do. Unsuccessful transitions end up on tabloids' front pages and dead or doing jail time.

Kawamotos big to little: Akari, Hinata, Momo
Rei's life is not all gloom and shogi.  He has been 'adopted' by a lively family of three daughters, the eldest of which works in a variety of jobs to support the others.  Orphans, like him, they are among the few who can see past his quiet façade to the seething pain and confusion within.  He also decided to enroll (a year late) in high school, even though it's a challenge to be a student and a shogi pro simultaneously.  Luckily, his homeroom teacher is a huge shogi fan and recognized him on sight.

It is probably worth mentioning that shogi is a lot bigger deal in Japan than chess is in most of the western world.  We learn in early chapters that Rei is competing to get onto the ladder for the 'MHK' tournament that decides the champions in shogi at each ranking.   'MHK' is a reference to NHK, which is the Japanese equivalent to BBC in the UK, DW in Germany, or ABC in Australia - the national broadcasting company.  Yes, the annual shogi championships are shown on national TV.  I suspect that less explanation of shogi is needed in seinen manga compared to the amount of explanation of chess that would be required if Bruce Wayne took it up in one of the Dark Knight graphic novels.  Indeed, Randall Munroe's recent effort involving chess (and history) in XKCD and audience response to same suggests that it's even more marginalized than I thought.  For the record: I got the joke, but was confused by the notation (error).

Umino is going slow with this one, but she’s digging straight into the middle of motivation and self definition.  I have no idea where this story is going, but I suspect it will be fun to watch it get there.  If Honey and Clover is any indication, we can safely assume that the plot won't go in a straight or obvious direction.  I just hope that the publishers and scanlation team Be With You Scans stick with it.

Not your average middle schoolgirl
A perennial favorite for me is Acony.  Acony Lanchester is kinda-sorta dead.  She’s also far older than she looks.  She lives in a wacky sort of interdimensional apartment house along with a variety of other really odd beings and our (mostly normal) protagonist, young Motomi.   

Acony's interesting history
The manga, oddly, also had a strange half-dead existence in the sense that it ran in Kodansha’s Seinen flagship monthly Afternoon, but only when another big title of similar size (usually Hatsukanezumi no Jikan) didn’t have a chapter ready that month.  Accordingly, it took something like a year for enough chapters to be published to make the first tankobun.  It’s complete in Japan with three volumes, but who knows when the rabbits will finish scanlating it?

Clockwise from top: Cub, Isaki, Kajika
Another slow-moving favorite is Kabu no Isaki.  If you read Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, you know that Ashinano-sensei loves airplanes.  Our protagonist Isaki saves up money from his afterschool part-time job to fly a Piper Cub ('kabu').  Later on, the Cub's owner, Shiro, hires him on as a pilot.  She assigns him delivery duty to various places far away from their small town.  Usually, it seems that there is something in particular that Shiro wanted him to see or experience on this particular trip.

Shiro teasingly hires Isaki
I have an even happier attachment to this manga than YKK for the simple reason that I have been personally associated with a yellow Super Cub just like the one in the manga.  Designed in the 1930s, the Cub is a living fossil of aviation.  It's probably one of a very small group of airplane designs that not only never went out of fashion, but was almost instantly cloned by other manufacturers and home builders when Piper quit building the originals in the 1990s. Cubs are still popular bush and training planes to this day because they're slow (slow is good if you have one engine and uncertain landing conditions), durable, and cheap to operate.

Shiro skips the preflight inspection

There are three principal characters in KnI: Isaki, 16 year old male protagonist, Shiro, the winsome owner of the cub and operator of a very small flying service with one very small plane, and Kajika, Shiro's little sister, who has a slowly-awakening crush on Isaki and often flies around with him.  I haven't bothered with kanji because all three characters' names are written in katakana. 

...and gets a dig in at Kajika
This manga is another slow, pleasant waft across a changed (though not post-apocalyptic) world, much as YKK was.  The scanlation group dou turn out a chapter about every 150 days or so, alternating with Ueshiba's Discommunication Seirehen and various one-shots at an average release rate of about six chapters a year.  It's fun stuff, not available in any store outside of Japan, and very much worth your time.  Enjoy.

On to New Stuff

The good news is that I have several new additions to my manga watch list:  Iris Zero, Koharu no Hibi, Tetsunagi Kooni, and Tonari no Kashiwagi-san.  Alphabetically presented:

Koyuki is airheaded enough that  this is believable
Iris Zero was a surprise.  It’s shounen and not especially deep, but it does some interesting things with an otherwise generic theme.  It approaches the X-Men from the opposite direction: what if psychic supernatural abilities become commonplace in a generation?  Would ‘normal’ children not then become the targets of bullying and discrimination?

...which creates conflict with Toru's philosophy
In this case, the psychic ability is called an ‘iris.’  Irises are generally informational and interpersonal in nature – the more useful ones can help in most any situation.  Most irises, however, are more specialized and generally less useful, but can be leveraged with good problem solving skills.

Mangaka TANAKA Hotaru has a real gift both for plotting and for characterization.  The story starts with detached, smart, crass, cynical high school second year MIZUSHIMA Toru being more or less ambushed by fellow second year SASAMORI Koyuki – a popular, rather airheaded genki girl on the student council whose iris allows her to see the most qualified person to meet a particular criterion.  Her character definition page in volume one defines her as ‘the type of girl who would name her stuffed toys.’  She homes in on Toru as the one most capable of helping her find a nominee for student council president after she has struck out at the direct approach.  This is quite surprising to Toru because he has no iris at all, so couldn’t possibly have some supernatural ability to help identify the best candidate. Koyuki, however, is not the kind of girl to give up on an assignment so easily.  And so the plot spins into motion with the minimum of fuss and effort.  SHIROW Masamune could learn something from this guy…  The art style is what you see here.  Characters are mostly drawn sort of chibi, but the style is pretty consistent, backgrounds are good, and shading and detail work are better than average.  Discrimination and perception versus reality are recurring themes.

Koharu on title page of chapter one
Koharu no Hibi is another lightweight but fun entry.  Koharu is a loli-appearing first year girl in high school.  The title is a deliberate reference to Inoue’s entertaining Midori no Hibi, which involved a rather peculiar shounen comedy-romance between an upperclass princess and a thug from a rough public school.  That title, in turn, is a reference to Midori no Hi, which is ‘greenery day,’ one of the golden week holidays in Japan.  This manga explores the question: when is obsession creepy and when is it harmless?  The vehicle: incoming first year high schooler MUTSUKI Koharu has a completely warped dere-dere fixation on male lead Akira.

Thus begins the obsession...
How warped?  So warped that it wouldn’t seem out of place in a porno doujin.  So warped that she wouldn't mind being the star of a porno doujin if it was what Akira wanted her to do.  So warped that it almost immediately reminded me of Yuno’s obsession with Yukiteru in Mirai Nikki.  But the mangaka plays it (and Akira) straight, which results in Akira vacillating between being creeped out at the depth of Koharu’s fixation and fretfully protective of her blindered innocence.  Her faith in him is so absolute that it makes the end soliloquy of The Taming of the Shrew a feminist manifesto by comparison.  It’s pretty much a one-gag story, but so far it’s holding up fairly well.  Chapters are short, art is plain, and plots are simple, which is fine for a gag manga like this.  I admit to some curiosity about just where this (very thin) plot is actually going to go and how it's going to get there, but then that's sort of the point, isn't it?

Senri's character design page
Tetsunagi Kooni is like Kabu no Isaki - another story I wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for liking something else by the same author.   In this case, the other series was the amusing Hidamari Sketch, and the author AOKI Ume.    
Senri meets her first humans
It's about an orphaned oni (demon) girl that came down from the mountains into a human town out of hunger (ko oni = 'child demon').  The story has Aoki-sensei’s characteristic art style, of course, but it also has a more concentrated form of the humor based on confused expectations that I found one of the more appealing aspects of Hidamari.  There are currently 33 chapters scanlated and the plot is ongoing.  We've just recently had some fairly major plot developments, which I profoundly hope are not signs of the manga wrapping things up before ceasing.

Title page of ch. 1 L-R Yuuto, Kotone, Kazuki, Sayaka chibis
And that leads us to Tonari no Kashiwagi-san ('My Neighbor Kashiwagi-san').  In this case, the ground is somewhat well-trod.  We’ve got an unfashionable otaku high school boy for a male lead.  We have the beautiful and unobtainable class idol with a secret.  Could it be Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu?  No, actually It couldn’t, because I’ve never bothered to read/watch that.

Yuuto does not read Kotone well
As you know if you’ve read my comments on Ore no Imouto, I’m not particularly interested in otaku culture navel-gazing.  It generally appears to be simple pandering to the wounded pride of otakus who are still somewhat marginalized by mainstream society in Japan.  Because it’s commercially successful, we continue to see more of it as time passes.  In the case of Ore no Imouto it added nothing of value to the plot, although I’m certain it added considerable value to the publishers’ bank accounts.

Luckily, here we have a mangaka willing to go into deeper waters and actually find a story.  It’s necessary for this story that the male lead (SAKURABA Yuuto) be socially inept and unfashionable for some reason.  Being an otaku is perfectly adequate for that.  It’s also necessary that he have an object of desire in school.  Check on that one too.

...but then Kotone isn't easy to read.
Now for the fun part – his object of desire is a quiet, introverted, socially inept artist (KASHIWAGI Kotone).  They sit side-by-side in class, but actually have a second social connection of which they’re both initially completely unaware: Kotone posts her art on a discussion website (a rebranded Mixi) and Yuuto comments there.  So we have the rather amusing state for a few chapters of Kotone and Yuuto simultaneously being both very formal and awkward and very collegial to each other at the same time without noticing it.

Just when that plot threatens to peter out, the mangaka successfully expands the character cast and storyline into a larger, more realistic world.  The character ensemble has continued to organically grow as the characters move around and interact.  In this respect, it's a lot like Kojima's Mahoraba, which ended up with a huge character cast of generally distinguishable and usually credible characters but never overwhelmed the viewer with the 'cast of thousands' problem.  

Yuuta isn't a social butterfly, either
At the start of volume four of Kashiwagi-san, we're up to about ten characters in the ensemble, and are still exploring the implications of the relationships among them.  Some of the amusement derives from the socially awkaward otaku lead being blissfully unaware of the relationships between his friends and coworkers. Stylized but good art makes the manga easy on the eyes.  There’s a bit of intentional chibi-ing and the general character design is also reminiscent of Mahoraba, although it’s more anatomically accurate and the backgrounds have more detail and better shading.  Facial expressions are generally good and usually characteristic.

The personalities are similarly appealing, mostly because they’re not off-the-shelf.  In fact, Kotone’s best friend Sayaka is a character type I’ve not observed in manga before - she starts off as the standard protective yandere sidekick of the naïve female lead, but she then gets considerable character development exploring her own social ineptitude (of which, being a yandere, she has plenty) and grows into a more complex character.  The relationship between Yuuto and his sidekick/wingman also fills out into something credible as the chapters progress, with a resultant deepening of the sidekick's character as well.

Another item worth mentioning is that Yuuta sees the world through a haze of memes he has picked up from console adventure games, dating sim games (galge), and anime.  They form a memetic framework for his thoughts and words that can sometimes be confusing if you don't understand the slang.  In this respect it's similar to the amusing Danshi Kokousei no Nichijou ('Daily Lives of High School Boys') anime that ran last season.