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.