Friday, December 28, 2012

Extremely Short Take, Another Take: Black Butler

Oh my God stop me, Christmas is somehow making me vindictive. I.e., one sure way to bring out my Monday morning cranky side is by talking about Black Butler.

Title: Black Butler
Author & Artist: Yana Toboso

I first read Black Butler two years ago. I'm still reeling from the car crash.

It's not that I object to the creepy sexual undertone between a butler and his pre-pubescent master, because that would severely limit my reading materials if I were into manga at all, right guys? Right? Black Butler is merely an unholy marriage of every seedy underbelly aspect of manga. You see, the one thing that a person loathes more than the success of the things she hates is the failure of stuff she loves.

Let's analyze the premise: In Victorian England, snot-nosed brat Earl Ceil Phantomhive and his butler Sebastian look devastatingly handsome while battling the forces of evil. Except Sebastian has earned his perfect house cleaning degree (sarcastic) from devil school (metaphorical). Unadvertised/real reason anybody would read this thing: yaoi subtext that crosses age, species and gender boundaries.

Let's face it, yaoi subtext? Right up my alley. All the other trappings? Not so much. I have long detested the Gothic vein in manga, especially manga outright set in Europe, since not only do I prefer Eastern to Western aesthetics, but also because these manga have nothing in the way of substance, believing that frills and master-servant or sheltered heroine dynamic brings readers by the hordes and sustains their interests.

For the record, of course I have exceptions, after all, Fullmetal Alchemist is steampunk.

Anyway, the Victorian England settings often does disservice to the manga, because we all know how much mangaka like to research their subjects thoroughly, not taking liberties with period fashion right? Turns out that's the least of my worries.

Because Black Butler opens by establishing three things: Sebastian is perfect, all other characters beside Sebastian and Ceil are hapless, and the series is totally pointless. If I strip away the sparkles (of which there are lots,) the awkward exclamations (of which there are several too many,) and the decidedly unamusing interactions (which should be stronger since that's where you hang your hook,) the "plot" of the first chapter is thus: Sebastian wipes the floor with some martial artist. They both look the opposite of cool and the epitome of stiff human anatomy with the former posing a finishing move and the latter posing the 1000-hand crane (what, you say, what?) Sebastian proceeds to save a super important dinner (that's super important guys, Ceil is discussing children toys with a genial old man - a long-time business partner and everything) because the other servants have all chosen to simultaneously cock up. Cue exaggerated reactions all around and crude portrayal of foreigners and household servants.

Seriously, the world does not have to hang in the balance for something to have gravitas, but dear mangaka, for introduction to your characters and a simple dinner you don't need that level of melodrama. In fact, sometimes I prefer my first chapters to be non-action oriented if I was delving into the slice-of-life variety. Black Butler could be mining for dark comedy in treating dinner with life-or-death drama, but I didn't find the chapter funny in the least. It was plainly overdone. Waiter, send it back please.

Another problem is Black Butler's minor characters, in the sense that they are character traits slapped onto humanoid figures and an inconsequential echo chamber for the sheer greatness that is Sebastian. Why bother giving them names? Why not just label them the cook, the maid, because that's both easier to remember and what they ultimately amount to anyway. Their services become their identity, which, nice job of portraying Victorian England mindset.

My predictions for the following chapters, having heard so many wonderful ravings about the boys: Black Butler will attempt to adopt a "dark" tone (murder on the agenda! Unhealthy symbiotic relationships!) which will mesh well with the first chapter since evil was practically crawling underneath the surface and all. Sebastian and Ceil will engage in pseudo-sexual acts (it's not a kiss, it's mouth-to-mouth resuscitation! And butlers bridal-carry their masters all the time, et cetera.)

There is no saving grace. The art is clumsy and not nuanced; it merely ridiculously fetishizes Victorian fashion. Add that to the hopelessly objectified cardboard cut-outs of characters and the clunky storytelling, you've got my nightmare manga.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Extremely Short Takes: Ouran High School Host Club

The prudent reader will scour manga review blogs or take their sisters' recommendations before ever opening a volume. I am not that kind of reader. I am the impulsive kind of reader, and have started way more series than I have seen to the end and hey, doesn't that sound very familiar? On some occasions, after a chapter or a volume another kind of instinct kicks in, the self-preservation kind, the kind that lets me drop cold many a story. Let it never be said that I'm the masochistic kind of reader.

Hence the short takes series. These manga are for the most part so bad I remember their names or so overrated I can't forget their names. To be fair, most people admit they are guilty guilty pleasures.

No ratings, because one chapter/volume does not a series make, and I'm liable to give them all 1/10 when unsupervised.

Title: Ouran High School Host Club
Author & Artist: Bisco Hatori

One of the most frustrating thing about manga is that you can't talk about it with your non-fandom friends and most of your other fandom friends from the Harry Potter and Supernatural heydays. They awkwardly shuffle their feet and you end up talking about The Avengers or whatever Hollywood's pushing out that even vaguely appeals to women, instead. The thing is, people do read manga, they just read Ouran, and Fruits Basket, and Sailor Moon, with their nostalgia goggles firmly attached. One reason why I dub myself newtype fangirl is because I look at classics with fresh eyes. It's not my fault that I missed the gravy train, okay?, and that Ouran did not become the staple of my teenage fantasies. (That, and the fact that I've never watched Totoro.)

So my friend who has never read any other manga lent me the first volume of Ouran High School Host Club. It was my attempt at integrating myself with the general fangirl populous, i.e., the pre-yaoi crowd. They have had a good point about Glass Mask, after all.

Synopsis: A poor girl rides into a rich private high school on a scholarship. She becomes servant to a disgustingly spoiled host club after breaking their expensive vase. I read it a few years ago, no lasting impression remains, I just have the vague memories of sparkles, no negative space whatsoever - you have text where? - and these cross purposes tangents that are somehow both half-hearted and furious. I loved myself far too much to continue. Though not enough, apparently, because I have just revisited the first chapter, for time-accrued-wisdom's sake, and Ouran, why must you jump from meeting the host club to bad exposition to randomly inserted backstory to the unexpected (not really) twist. Cue bishounen archetypes, the twins, the shouta, the megane, and the jerk who's contractually bound to be there and who's actually got a chance with the girl.

It was the most cluttered, fragmented, logic-from-outerspace reading experience ever. The only reason I managed to follow the plot was because I had read the back cover synopsis. Unassisted by a summary, for the life of me I cannot tell you what happens next. Ouran assumed that readers wanted the manga to get the set-up over with and get on with the shenanigans already. It gives the vibe that the mangaka finds her own story tedious, so let's skip to the wrist-grabbing, misunderstanding-abound part. That's feeble in comparison to Mitsuru Adachi's and Akira's and GTO's (and et cetera) lovingly, patiently crafted premises. Consider Touch's first chapter, which establishes family life and a romantic triangle that's no less complicated than Ouran's harem, but doing so by sampling the careless familiarity in its characters' interaction and by sensible exposition. All in less than 30 pages.

Adding insult to injury, hearsay informs me that Ouran also demonstrates problematic treatment of women (what sexist undertone?) but even discounting that, this manga is an unapologetic, utter mess.

Friday, December 14, 2012

WTF Shounen in: AKB49 - Renai Kinshi Jourei

Title: AKB49 - Renai Kinshi Jourei
Author & Artist: Reiji Miyajima

Stop me if you have heard this before: wanting to impress his dream girl, a boy cross-dresses to audition for female idol group AKB48's 12th generation Kenkyusei squad, which consists essentially of hopeful trainees. He gets in, and for love-lorn reasons, continues to cross-dress and perform as a Kenkyusei member, in center position no less. Apparently, as foreshadowed in the very first pages of the manga, he eventually becomes the legendary 49th addition to AKB. Hence the title.

No, I don't think I got flagged down once in that entire description.

This crack-tastic premise doesn't betray how utterly generic the manga turns out to be, when you get down to it. In fact, everything aside from what happens in the manga itself boggles the mind. As in, What Demographic Does It Actually Appeal to? I know intellectually that AKB49 runs in Weekly Shounen Magazine, (alongside Fairy Tail, make of that what you will,) but I would be hard-pressed to find a teenage boy reading a story about a teenage boy becoming an idol, much less one of the female persuasion. In this sense AKB49 fits with the shoujo catalogue, but I would also be hard-pressed to find a teenage girl who enjoys reading about a boy becoming a female idol in the context of fanservice.

This is one for the built-in fanbase, then.

Which brings me to how I came to read this manga. I thought it would be a guide, of a sort, to a subculture of Japan that I have yet to be introduced to. I was morbidly curious, even though that way often lies madness. Well, I didn't know some of the things mentioned in this manga, the most fascinating of which being the "handshake events," where fans line up to shake hands with group members, but by and large, if you want something remotely educational, then you'd better move along, nothing to see here, no sirree.

This is because somehow  I doubt that Japan's idol industry is so welcoming to inexperienced newcomers, and generally operates on shounen logic, by which I mean oozing cheese out of its ears. A girl in a crisis of identity? One inspirational comment from a guy then back on her feet she goes. The most popular girl in AKB? Of course she notices the talent-questionable but hard-working newbie. Industry veterans and seasoned audience? Be moved by the sheer power of their commitment. Desperate last minute popularity bid? A sensational and quirky resounding success. AKB49 plays straight every cliche in the handbook, resulting in a less than accurate portrayal of the struggle behind the curtains. For that, go read something like Solanin, because there's no place for level-headed reflection on life in a shounen magazine these days.

What's there, is passion. Underdog sports shounen offerings and underdog idol's climb to the top have this in common, the passion. And underneath the rampant abuse of tropes and behind the flashes of panties, I could sense no malice, only a breathtaking sincerity. The attraction is not "everything a girl can do a guy can do it better," or merely bouts of inane bravado followed by watching pretty girls dance to their amusement, and even if it is, I choose to see its better sides. The attraction, for me, is that when I read AKB49 and root for Minori, I forget that Minori is Minoru, a boy.

The message is that gender ultimately does not matter, that any person following their dream is beautiful and worth watching. Granted, I do not think AKB49 is being subversive by conscious choice, the stereotypes such as the grating-on-my-last-nerve tsundere and the blandly attractive love interest would suggest differently. I would posit, though, that AKB49 has made well-worn tropes into the vehicle for more progressive thinking, despite its own host of frankly crippling issues. What's that you say, substance? Have you not been paying attention at all?

Edit, because I realize I have been making assertions that I haven't defended: Except for one dumb fanservice moment where Minoru is horribly conflicted about sleeping next to his crush who's looking as vulnerable as possible, AKB49 hasn't exploited the gender bender angle. (There's no changing room shenanigans, and he gets groped by a girl, how about that for role reversal?) And both Minori and Minoru are liberal blushers, display the same tenacity and rashness, because dear writers, that's a good look on both genders and not just your male protagonists. This is actually more progressive than certain gender bender manga and shows where the main conflict is "she's in an all-male boarding school, oh my god" which invariably entails small boobs jokes and aggressive behavior and forcing the girl to strip and her being rescued by a boy. Not that I would know, much.

An aspect where AKB49 is unabashedly shoujo: Minoru's growth as a freaking idol is marked with emotional maturity and not the acquisition of a new move. AKB49 can also verge into naivete: being perceived as a girl isn't constricting or liberating; it just means Minoru can be close to and more supportive of the person he loves.

(All well and good, but really, come for the experience, stay for the art. It can verge into inconsistent, but boy are the outfits gorgeous.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Why-Do-I-Do-This-to-Myself Yuri in: Strawberry Panic!

It's not my intention to pick up two shitty titles in a row, because no, I don't enjoy reading them just to provide a scathing write-up. Now, I enjoy reading scathing write-ups, but who doesn't? That's like half the reason I read reviews at all. Excuse: I saw the name being thrown around on AnineNewsNetwork, okay, and they hardly mention yuri at all. Jason Thompson and yaoi on the other hand...

Strawberry Panic!
Author: Sakurano Kimino
Artist: Namuchi Takami

Strawberry Panic! comes with an elephant-sized warning sign, because hey, strawberry and exclamation mark in the same vicinity. Manga reading tip #1: unless you are that way inclined, by which I mean of the porn persuasion, never pick up anything thing with strawberry in the title.

Manga reading tip #2: novel adaptations should by and large be avoided. Did I wiki Strawberry Panic! before diving into the manga, no, because I was still naive then, all of three hours ago. Which is to say, by the way, I am "pirating" this manga online even though Seven Seas has made it available to English speaking audience. Now, I put the quotes around pirating because I consider the practice an extended preview, and sure, if I like the manga I go out of my way to buy it, if I don't it's just like putting the volume back in the bookshelf without, you know, the trip to the bookstore or the loosening of the book bind.

Anyway, I should mention, Strawberry Panic! was adapted from a successful short story series, with its own complex cliche-ridden insular universe, and in true adaptation style, we're dropped right into it. This highlights the fact that most adaptation materials from Japan are made with only their built in audience in mind, thus they suffer from readers' lack of familiarity with the canon, i.e., the WTF factor is very very high. Strawberry Panic! is no exception, though the fact that it makes sense while setting a very fast, albeit exposition heavy, pace, should be applauded.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: free-spirited Nagisa transfers to St. Miator's Girls' Academy, an all-girl private boarding school. She meets enigmatic, popular upperclassman Shizuma who takes a sudden interest in the new student, which action causes jealousy from both her admirers and others, who too, vie for Nagisa's affection within five minutes of meeting her. Shizuma plans to compete in the Etoile tournament, in which four schools are participants, with Nagisa, because the premise really can't be completed without borrowing tropes from shounen manga too.

Thus a mishmash of tropes which is quite ingenious in the original marketing scheme for the game spin-off and surprisingly effortless to navigate through, but nonetheless hopelessly uninspired. I realize this may put me on a watch list, okay, but merely putting pubescent girls in the all-girl school context doesn't automatically make the story tantalizing, you have to put in the effort to establish the bubble-wrap perfect separation from the outside world, the disquieting hierarchy, and so on. Instead the manga ruthlessly, perfunctorily zips through cliches one by one, and I'm certain that yawning wasn't the response that the forcibly kissing scene was supposed to elicit. Which, try harder, it's doing nothing for me.

Characters are similarly one-note. I'm no psychiatrist, but I could read their history from the moment they appear on the page. The confident and attractive mature one, the yandere, the tsundere, the stern glasses-wearing one, and so on. They say personality types, I say dumb lead with whom I'm suppose to identify and objectified women in uniforms. This is ecchi in disguise, guys.

To be honest, did I expect masterpiece, no, but I expected compelling storytelling with a side of girl-on-girl action (I said it). This is the trouble with fanservice titles, because there is such a thing as being discerning. Hell, from its inception yaoi has had such titles as The Heart of Thomas (pick it up guys!), and yuri such as Revolutionary Girl Utena, so no, that's not an excuse.

Adding insult to injury, Strawberry Panic! is unfinished. The manga adaptation has been suspended for ungooglable reasons and is unlikely to ever be completed in its original language, much less our English version. By the way, the artwork is middle-of-the-road lazy, as in plenty of tones and background that after visiting a Japanese stationary I know for a fact is tone too. Characters have varying boob sizes and stiff hair, but otherwise thankfully remain somewhat proportionate. Which is by no means a compliment.

In a nutshell? Do not read it, do not read it , do not read it, I don't care how your curiosity begs.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Old School Shoujo in: Amakusa 1637

So hi, if you are here you have spent too much time on the Internet, but anyway I will be posting manga reviews on this blog. Sometimes I will cover mangaka, sometimes I will cover shoujo, or shounen, or seinen, who knows, because if I stick to a release schedule I'd better be paid for it. Which I'm not.

If there is a manga you want me to review though, just comment and I will consider the suggestion. Ditto if you have any questions or opinions about my posts.

Amakusa 1637
Michiyo Akaishi

Amakusa 1637 purports to be about six modern day teenagers who, stranded in 17th century Japan, decide to change the outcome of the Shimabara rebellion and save the 37,000+ casualties. What Amakusa 1637 actually is, is fucked up shit.

So six close friends on the student council of St. Francisco Academy are magically transported back in time via a shipwreck into the burgeoning stages of the Shimabara rebellion. We follow the perspective of Natsuki, badass independent tomboy girl stereotype who is dropped near the home of the old couple who have lost their son. Who looks just like Natsuki, and who is the prophesied hero of the rebellion.

Of the six friends, both Miyamoto and Yatsuka are smitten with Natsuki, but she only likes Miyamoto back and I, really, support that decision seeing as how he actually respects her, and it makes character sense because she can take care of herself, not being the clumsy flailing type and all that entails. Yatsuka, on the other hand, because he was thrown back in the past further than our heroine, has engaged in five years of death penalty offences when they reunite. Turns out, he fell in love with the man who bore a resemblance to Natsuki, initiated intercourse with the guy while threatening his family, and after a while strangled him because he feared that he might become his weakness. That's not taking into account the ruthless slaughter and arson he committed against Christians, whereabouts of whom he had gained through being from the future. Icing on the cake: Yatsuka also forcibly kisses Natsuki while she is being bound, and then she forgives him with a hug and completely converts him to her cause and it's sunshine and kittens again. It's like he crossed the line, crossed another one, and then drew another line just to cross it, and then she came and stomped all over those lines. Which, let's not forget, in the context of this story, she represents the messenger of the Christian god, so yeah, add Christianity to sexual assault and massacre on the list of stuff that's being poorly handled by this manga.

It all comes wrapped up in sparkly shoujo conventions, only the sharp contrast between youthful bravado and cold massacre comes across as more incidental rather than artistically purposeful. It's only so many times one character restates their mission statement after hinting at it for half of the book before you chalk it up to bad writing. Here's a newsflash: that Natsuki decides to stay and help the people isn't as a huge deal as it's portrayed if 1, the fact wasn't so obvious in its set-up, 2, the teenagers have no way of returning anyway, and 3, there was anything close to development in Natsuki's character. So no, if Amakusa can't pull off standard manga convention it sure as hell can't pull off touchy social issues.

Then there's the uncomfortable incestuous vibe. Not actually incest, no, but the circle of friends resembles enough a family unit that the rampant sexual tension becomes disturbing. We have Miyamoto and Natsuki as the de facto parent figures, but bookworm girl Eri crushes on Natsuki as Natsuki has protected her prince-style from childhood, and Yatsuka, when he's not hitting on Natsuki, threatens to take an interest in straight boy Eiji. While student councils have always been breeding grounds for romantic inclinations every which way possible, Amakusa breaks convention by the overt yet not obviously fanservicey sensuality, and that's like intruding on some kind of code that for once I would really prefer unintruded.

Last redeeming opportunity, this is a question which I try to answer with every manga: At Amakusa's heart,... there is no heart. Amakusa banks on too many hooks to tell its story, hooks which become disparate elements that grate against one another: Christianity, 17th century Japan, student council, adoration of the peasants, chaste romance, sexual assault, shoujo trappings, etc.

In fact, Amakusa feels like it's fumbling round established boundaries, in the state of experimentation that should have passed years ago. I was surprised to discover that Amakusa was written as late as 2001, also partly because of the clumsy storytelling and the distinctly dated art style. Perhaps it's not the students who traveled through time...

And if the premise seems confusing it's because the only salient fact about this manga is that you shouldn't read it.