Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Scary Girlfriends

I was debating how to introduce this post, and decided that the song that crystallized it for me was just too good an introduction to pass up. ZZ Top's Got Me Under Pressure:
She likes wearin' lipstick, she likes French cuisine
But she wont let me use my passion unless its in a limousine.

She got me under pressure.

She likes the art museum, she don't like pavlovs dog.
She fun at the mind museum, she likes it in a London fog.
She don't like other women, she likes whips and chains.
She likes cocaine and filppin' out with great danes.
Shes about all I can handle, its too much for my brain.

Its got me under pressure.

I'm gonna give her a message,
Heres what I'm gonna say:
Its all over.
She might get out a nightstick
And hurt me real real bad
By the roadside in a ditch.

Its got me under pressure.
Yeah. Scary girlfriends.

Female romantic interest lead character types in manga and anime for male readers are usually pretty generic. You've got your tsundere, you've got your yamato nadeshiko, you have the childhood friend (in both remembered and forgotten variations), you have the magical girlfriend - though sometimes (as in Chobits) she comes with scary fine print. There are a few variations on the theme, but they're rare, and usually they're just twists on the familiar.

It's not surprising. Japan was entirely a feudal, agrarian society until about 150 years ago. As in the Western feudal tradition, women were expected to keep the home fires burning and produce the next generation, and were valuable as bargaining chips in land and property negotiations. The difference between us and them is that all of this mostly came to a halt in Western societies about 300 years ago, but it was still going strong as an expected standard of behavior for Japanese women as late as the 1940s. Marriage for status is alive and well today in Japan, as is arranged marriage. Both are leftovers of the same feudal system.

When you're trying to wrap your mind around the dynamics of something like Minmei suddenly wanting to settle down with Hikaru at age 19 in Macross, Aoi at age 19 running away from home to latch onto her guy in Ai Yori Aoshi, or any of countless other similar cases in shounen/seinen mangaworld of the female lead aspiring to be the stay-at-home housewife (奥さん) as her highest goal, try to apply something like a 1930s-1950s USA mindset to it. They didn't have a women's liberation movement in the 1970s, and most Japanese women don't see the point of one now.

Because of changing demographics and economics, women in Japan are doing steadily more work outside the home to make the wheels go around and keep food on the table. This creates a strain with men's expectations. I believe that a lot of the doormat qualities of shounen/seinen romatic interests have to do with wish fulfillment - you can't find a real girl like this, but we can surely draw one for you in a manga.

The bad girl exists in male-oriented manga, but not normally as a romantic interest. Usually she's a spoiler in a harem story (as with Akemi in Maison Ikkoku, or Rin in Midori no Hibi) or sometimes she might be some sort of fairy godmother/hot landlady to the male lead (as with Haruka in Love Hina). Inevitably, she'll develop some side-plot that vaguely points to a happy ending for her at the end of the story after she has finally given up on messing up the primary relationship in the story.

But there has been, in recent years anyway, a small trend toward making the bad girl the female lead in a shounen romance. The results are generally interesting, as you would expect. Here then, are three examples of girlfriends who, to quote ZZ Top, just might hurt you real, real bad.

I've mentioned Mirai Nikki previously in my blog, but I hadn't really gone into much detail. Here, then, is a proper review.

Mirai Nikki

Future Diary
Serialized in Kadokawa's Shounen Ace

Amano Yukiteru, 'Yukki' to his friends, is a rather boring Japanese schoolboy who acts and dresses like someone growing up to be a hikkikomori like Satou from Welcome to the NHK. He's detatched from school, his classmates, and life in general. He has three noteworthy characteristics:
  1. He compulsively diarises everything in his cell phone.
  2. He is the coolest hand with darts and a dart board you've ever seen.
  3. When bored, he imagines conversations with his imaginary friend, a super-powerful being named Deus Ex Machina.
At right: The inside cover to Vol 1.

One day, his imaginary friend declares that it's time to upset things, and so adds a special new feature to Yukki's cell-phone diary. It now shows entries from his near future. Yukki has the ability to alter his fate by changing his actions based on the cell phone's predictions.

Sounds like fun, right? The diary even provides the correct answers for school exams. Well, it is fun...for a while. Then Yukki meets Gasai Yuno. As he thinks to himself when checking her out in class, "Good grades, and beautiful. Our school's very own idol."

At left: Yuno at her cutest cluing Yukki in. This is a good example of the art at its best. Sorry for the resize artifacts - they're not in the scanslation original.

Seems like some variation on the magical girlfriend story, doesn't it? Well, it's true that Yuno very much wants to be Yukki's girlfriend. She wants to be Yukki's girlfriend so much that she also has a cellphone future diary...except hers tells the story of her relationship with Yukki with a ten-minute resolution. 'Stalker' is not too strong a word to describe her. Indeed, I'm not sure there's a word that is strong enough to describe her feelings toward Yukki. It's also true that she tends to have...violent tendencies toward people who get between her and whatever she wants. Did I mention that she seems to be quite talented with a variety of edged weapons?

There's more to the plot, of course. Yukki and Yuno are just two of many people who have been given some sort of prognosticating diary, and they're all trying to kill each other as rapidly and efficiently as possible so that they can get 'the prize.' Nothing especially original there (it was an old plot when The Highlander was made in the 1980s), although the treatment is good, and the manga's overall story telling ability isn't bad.

At left: Yuno and Yukki share a tender moment through Yukki's mail slot.

It's shounen, so don't expect a deep and complex plot. There is, however plenty of action, and it does a good job with varying things. So far (we're currently scanslated to vol. 5), plot is still fresh.

Because foretelling is such a big part of the plot, nearly every chapter starts off with something that would normally be called a spoiler. Truth is, though, that the 'spoilers' are missing context. As with a teaser for the next episode of a TV show, they serve to heighten the reader's interest, rather than actually spoil anything.

At right: Yuno definitely qualifies as a scary girlfriend.

Nazo no Kanojo X
Mysterious Girlfriend X
Serialized in Kodansha's Afternoon monthly

For our second entry in the scary girlfriend sweepstakes, we're going to take a step into the seinen zone - the bizarre and quirky corner of the seinen zone, to be exact.

Tsubaki Akira was a typical Japanese second-year high-school student leading a completely unremarkable life. One day, mysterious Urabe Mikoto transferred into his class mid year and was seated beside him. Shortly after that, Akira's life became considerably more remarkable.

At left: Mikoto and Akira share a few words about drool early in Chapter 0 in their first private meeting.

It's not an accident that drool (and I agree with the translators' word choice here) figures in this page. Drool is, in fact, the vital lubricant that keeps the wheels of this manga turning. Mikoto and Akira do eventually become attached...sort of, but I'm not going to spoil the how and why.

Your art sample at left illustrates Ueshiba's character designs. Yes these are supposed to be high schoolers. If it makes you feel any better, Akira's older sister and his homeroom teacher both look young for their ages, too. I don't think he's aiming for the lolicon market - he draws males the same as females and when we see figures they're appropriately developed for the stated character age.

At right: Mikoto chastens Akira

Oh well, it's not jarring once you get used to it, anyway. From what little I've been able to find on his two prior mangas, Discommunication and Yume Tsukai (which was also made into an anime), he just draws people like this. Discommunication's plot, incidentally, sounds somewhat like Mysterious Girlfriend X's plot.

At left: Akira takes the hint.

About now, you might be wondering, "so what's so scary about Mikoto, anyway?" Well, Mikoto is pictured on the cover of volume one in an action stance holding a pair of scissors. Yes, scissors. Blunt-tipped ones with ergonomic plastic grips, to be exact. She's never separated from them. When Akira steps out of line, out come the scissors...

Who knew schoolgirls with scissors could be so scary?


(difficult to translate. 'Mahora' is something like 'great and splendid place' in the ancient Yamato language).
Serialized in Square Enix's Gan Gan Wing monthly

Our third scary girlfriend story is a little different from the prior two. For one thing, no edged weapons are involved. The male lead, likewise, isn't cut from the same cloth as the prior two, either. Shiratori Ryuushi is not a shounen schoolboy. He's left his unspecified two-hours-from-Tokyo hometown for the big city to pursue his dream of being a children's book author at the Sumeragi School of Design. As you may already know, the hardest part of being a student in metro Tokyo is finding someplace affordable to live. Our young gentleman lucks out on this - distant relatives own the Narutaki-sou apartment house, which happens to be quite convenient to his school, for all that it's in the shadow of skyscrapers. He's determined, disciplined, very polite and soft-spoken, and, now that I think of it, is a little like Mr. Rogers must have been at age 19. He's also totally unprepared for what is about to befall him.

At left: ooyasan kawaii! Ryuushi discovers that Narutakisou's biggest attraction isn't its location, but its landlady.

Things start well enough, as you might expect. Indeed, the setup feels a little like a story from a Key bishoujo game. Bubbly, cute (and distantly-related) space-cadet schoolgirl landlady Aoba Kozue remembers Ryuushi, but he remembers neither Narutakisou nor her. We meet several of his fellow tennants, who look like the usual set of stock characters set on impeding the progress of love between the two obvious protagonists.

And here's where Kojima-sensei earns my admiration. He takes what could be the same plot we've seen with variations before in dozens of boarding-house harem romances (Maison Ikkoku, Love Hina, Ai Yori Aoshi, Chobits and Ai Kora all come to mind), and sets you up perfectly. You're expecting a cross between Ai Yori Aoshi and Maison Ikkoku full of the standard character tropes and well-worn gags, and what you get is something else entirely.

At right: the mysteriously capable Tachibana's tarot card. Yes, there was a complete set of them which I'd love to have. from here

None of the characters in Mahoraba (he wrote, loosely quoting G'Kar) is precisely what he seems. You'll see what appears to be a bottle fairy, a tsundere, a hot mamasan, the ditz, a genki girl, and an assortment of others. Indeed, when described, it sounds like a generic hack job like...say...Love Hina. But if you stick with it through the end of volume 1, you'll discover that appearances can be deceiving. By the end of the series, you'll know everybody's back story. Even some of the minor characters who are never assigned names get a little bit of a back story. And the back stories aren't generic. If you're like me (an unabashed Tachibana fanboy), you'll wish you had some more back story for some of the characters when the series ends.

At this point, you're bound to be wondering who the scary girlfriend is. No, she's not Tachibana, who is quite capable of being scary, but isn't, as far as we know, anybody's girlfriend. It's no spoiler (since it's the very first page of the manga) to say that a principal character has DID (also known as MPD).

Further, it's a very, very small spoiler to add that the afflicted character is the Kozue, the cute landlady. You may or may not know much about the pop culture or clinical theory of DID, but suffice it to say that the manga actually stays relatively close to the clinical expectations of such a case. Kojima-sensei again earns my respect by avoiding cheap gags relating to Kozue's condition. The diesase isn't the subject of humor, but its effects on the other inhabitants of Narutakisou are indeed played for laughs. At some point you realize that the carefully happy family of Narutakisou exists to both keep awareness of Kozue's condition from her, and also to protect her from the vicissitudes of the uncaring world beyond its walls.

The first of Kozue's alternate personas we meet is Akasaki Saki. Saki-chan is as aggressive and physical as Kozue is kind and polite. Shiratori meets her when Kozue retreats from an embarrasing situation and leaves Saki to manage things. Saki automatically assumes the worst about Ryuushi and then proceeds to abuse him both physically and mentally until even the nominal bottle-fairy character feels sorry for him and extricates him from the situation.

At left: Ryuushi meets Saki-chan...or at least her iron fist.

I won't spoil any more of the fun about Kozue's nature, except to say that at least one other persona is as tough on Shiratori's mental self-image as Saki-chan is on his body. It's a slow reveal that takes quite a few chapters to complete, because there's plenty of other plot going on in the meantime. We meet Ryuushi's memorable classmates and his even more memorable instructor. Likewise, a slow exploration of the stories of the other inhabitants of Narutakisou begins, and several of these subplots take up whole chapters as they work toward resolution. They're nicely interspersed with other chapters and help to fill out a mosaic image of the world of Mahoraba. This is one manga that definitely doesn't have the Fruits Basket floating world problem.

Another thing I like about this manga is that Ryuushi never has to go through the shounen rite of 'growing a pair,' as I call it. Usually, shounen leads in harem romances (and Mahoraba is nominally shounen, even though it has unusually complex characters), start off too weak-willed to deserve the love of their intended, and have to go through some painful rite of passage in which they suck it up and get a backbone to make them worthy of the female lead's love/able to provide for her/get her out of her predicament/blah blah blah.

At right: Ryuushi trying to come to terms with Saki's existence
At Left: Saki demonstrates that she doesn't need a fist to beat Ryuushi up.

For instance, in Maison Ikkoku (1980), Godai is a poor ronin student studying for his college entrance exams who has to get a direction to his life and a reliable income source in order to prove his worthiness to the female lead (the apartment house manager). Likewise, in In Love Hina (1998), Keitaro is (again) a hopeless ronin student who finally gets some traction with the love interest only when he gets into university with her after something like ten volumes of bad scholarship jokes and physical abuse by the female lead (yes, I thought about including Love Hina on the list of Scary Girlfriend manga, but I don't want people to think I'm recommending it). See also Suzuka, Video Girl Ai and Ai Yori Aoshi among many others.

Yes, it's a recurring theme, and frankly, it has been overdone. Male leads like Shiratori Ryuushi in Mahoraba and Motosuwa Hideki in Chobits are refreshingly different in that they're perfectly functional guys who don't have to better themselves to get on with the plot. Our first clue that Ryuushi is not quite the pushover he initially seems to be is in chapter 7, where he rewrites the rules of a game to improve his chances of winning and then plays to exhaustion because he has reached the limit of polite acceptance of his neighbors' loud partying. At that point, he clearly departs from the generic harem lead, and shows us that, in Mahoraba, at least, nice guys definitely don't finish last, and that he lives up to his given name's dual meaning (noble gentleman/noble samurai).

At right: Mahoraba Ch. 7: Mr White Swan lays down the law on the peach one. No directionless wuss he.

In closing on Mahoraba, I have to mention yet another rare and good thing about it: it has been entirely, excellently, and lovingly scanslated by only one very talented scanslation group. So far, Mahoraba is Hiyoko no Gao's only product. They obviously love the manga and try very hard to carry the meaning and semblance of the manga into the English scanslation. They also put out a translators' notes file with every chapter released - a wonderful practice that I wish more scanslation groups would adopt. There's not always room for a cultural note or a detailed explanation on the manga page, but that doesn't mean that I don't want to miss the information, especially if it deepens my insight into the culture or the story. The only other manga scanslation I can name that is consistently anywhere near as good and uniform over such a long run is Snoopycool's work on Midori no Hibi.


Anonymous said...

Might I leave a comment. The bad girl is actually far more prevalent if you know what genre to look in. Karinka in Steel Angel Kurumi and Asuka in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Nao in Mai-HiME, and Ryoko in Tenchi Muyo are a few examples in the more *normal* themes of manga/anime (as you said, Harems). If you happen to watch or get involved with shoujo-ai and yuri, the bad girl is far more easy to find. Tomari from KashiMashi, Setsuna from the relationship in Negima, and Uruka from Steel Angel Kurumi 2.0 are a few examples. If you either like the bad girl character and/or don't mind shoujo-ai, I suggest a look into the theme.

Anonymous said...

You can download the first chapter of Mysterious Girlfriend X here:

RedMaigo said...

I'm going to have to disagree with link stifle in some of his recommendations as anime-bad girls. Asuka from NGE and Tomari from Kashimashi are tsundere's not bad-girls.

Setsuna is a Warrior/Samurai type like Motoko Aoyama from Love Hina.

There is a difference although all of type above can be a hand full to deal with.

Ryoko I definately agree with but I can't speak for Uruka from Steel Angel Kurumi since I've never watched it.