Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Yuri Detour: Futari Dake

Futari Dake is my favorite type of manga for all that it is not a typical manga, and I’m not even talking about the dark-and-edgy bullshit. For one, Futari Dake is technically a doujinshi; for another, Futari Dake is a thirty-page one-shot. Compact, quiet, dramatic, and intimate, Futari Dake unravels bullying with deep, understated empathy.

Title: Futari Dake
Author & Artist: Mountain Pukuichi

High school girl Saki becomes interested in her classmate, Ogata Ayumi. Saki eventually breaks off from her group of friends—who bully Ogata—to befriend Ogata. The story is very simple, very simply told, and it has been told some hundreds of thousands times before but I have never seen it told quite like this. Ogata is a devastatingly realistic combination of distressed and dealing with it. She is bullied not because she is fat or “plain-looking,” not because a popular boy likes her and that doesn’t jive with the other girls, not because she is special or different or any combination thereof.  Futari Dake directly comments on it: “Because we all kind of had a similar look,” thinks Saki, “I ended up hanging out with these girls right from the start. They’re probably picking on [Ogata] for some equally meaningless reason.”

Saki is no stereotype herself. She is not the kind of loud, aggressive, sociable, best-friend-to-the-heroine character; she’s just really self-assured and really interested in Ogata. (The homoerotic undertone here is barely noticeable, but perhaps it plays a huge part in not allowing Saki and Ogata to slot into stereotypical roles.) Saki doesn’t hotly confront her former friends when they bully Ogata either. The confrontation is in a girls’ bathroom, members only because that’s how we take care of our business, pun intended. Later, the leader of the group finds Saki and warns her of the bullying to come, but the meeting is quiet and perfectly amiable. It’s not personal, you see, it’s just high school politics.

And because Futari Dake deals in real characters with real human depth, it handles the bullying realistically in a way few coming-of-age stories have been able to. Ogata doesn’t stand up to anyone, and the bullies never repent or reap appropriate comeuppance. Ogata just has a friend to weather the bullying with her now and that’s more cathartic and moving than any kind of retribution arc. In the first turning point of Futari Dake, Saki goes up to Ogata and apologizes. Not just says that she’s sorry. Saki apologizes. Even though she’s never directly, physically hurt Ogata or badmouthed her. Saki is not the savior, doesn’t task herself with breaking Ogata out of her shell because Saki is simply here to make amends and to get to know Ogata.
Because Saki doesn’t understand Ogata, instead of alienating her, Saki embarks on a quest to know her.
It’s a story about empathy. That’s not just my favorite kind of manga; that’s my favorite kind of story, period.

It doesn’t hurt that for two subjects I hold very dear to my heart—bullying and female friendship—Futari Dake has portrayed both with stunning nuance. Earlier I mentioned Futari Dake’s homoerotic subtext, which never quite culminates in anything and hell, is less blatant than half of the shows airing on television, but is perhaps the crucial underpinnings of this story. Here, a heterosexual romance does not take precedence over the relationship—by all appearances a friendship—between two women. Another manga (Tomodachi no Hanashi) in this ilk belabors the point—the attractive friend does not desire to date any guy who doesn’t want to spend all of their dates with her best friend too. Yet by simply introducing the possibility of a lesbian relationship, Futari Dake mutes the strange absence of any male presence in the story to something barely noticeable. It lets two people come to each other free of assumptions and merely wanting to understand. This is the subversive power of yuri. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mid-series checkup: Skip Beat!

Warning: spoilers, references to past events that I don't bother to explain.

For long running manga if the question of declining quality doesn't niggle at you, you are a dirty lying liar who lies, because alright, name one that has not jumped the shark and then some over the course of its decade long life, and okay, ask the person next to you if they share that opinion. This is the fucking plague, okay, but I'm not here to complain, or to argue an open and shut case.

So let's talk about Skip Beat!'s recent Kain/Setsu arc.

Specifically, about the not-really-incest.

Here's what not-really about it: 1, they do not actually have sex; they do not actually kiss, at least while in character; and 2, oh yeah, they are not actually brother and sister, only playing at family.

Here's why that doesn't count: 1, not only is there sexual and romantic tension between them, it's helped by the brother and sister trappings; and 2, remember those lolicon manga that have the teenage boy perving on some one thousand-year-old demon--who has the form of a little girl? Well technically it's the little girl who's robbing the cradle. Yeah, I still wasn't born yesterday. Oh, was that a bad expression?

The main dynamic between Kyoko and Ren has always been of the romantic nature, so yes, if they are indeed each other's one true love that spark wasn't about to get stamped out by constant proximity. What gives them constant proximity? Oh right, the brother and sister act. Exhibit A, Ren remarks on Kyoko's being unguarded when they share a hotel room as a pair of siblings, because it's sex appeal of the actress playing his sister that brings Ren the great actor of Japan out of character, of course. They didn't even have to share a room--the agency would know better--but they did and it was a honest mistake from the side of the hotel. Not so much from the side of the author, not really. All that remains is for the two people in close proximity to take attraction and instinct to their natural conclusion. Well narratively speaking this slows the plot down instead of speeding it up, this misunderstanding. In other words Skip Beat is making sacrifices to plot coherency and may I say, integrity, for the purpose of titillation.

Another pertinent point I have yet to prove is the role of incest as a kink. Exhibit B, how Nakamura insists on highlighting how Kain loves to spoil Natsu, how Natsu makes him, how protective Kain is of his sister against potential suitors. Does that other guy have a reason to exist? Beyond making Kain jealous? Beyond acting competitive over acting roles-no-not-really-it's-the-sister? It's badly written badly handled badly generic incest drama here.

But, I have no objection to incest as a kink, and I do not pick and choose which series I take issue to, so what's the problem? Skip Beat! isn't being sincere about it. Isn't sibling bond even closer than that of childhood friends, thus negating Shou's advantage--but not really? See, any attraction Kain has for his sister Setsu is really from Ren to Kyoko, we mustn't conflate the actors and the characters they play, after all.   Then Skip Beat! shouldn't be deriving sexual tension from the situation, because this makes Skip Beat! no better than those pseudo rape fantasy shoujo manga out there (no, he's just lapping up blood from her wrist with an orgasmic expression on his face). Well, some may say, it's not like a mainstream shoujo manga can cop up to using incest as kink, then DON'T TO IT IN THE FIRST PLACE.

We have to consider how much of this is role-play too. What's going on here, why are you trying to throw so many kinks together in the same story line Skip Beat!? It honestly baffles me. Role-play has worked out well for the manga before, see the student teacher debacle, and this being a manga about an aspiring actress if the manga does not partake a slice in that cake I would be very surprised. Actually now all we have established is an MO: the romantic tension between the roles translate to the romantic tension between the characters. It was teacher/student to the real life sempai/kohai, so the older brother/younger sister here is not only intentional, it follows a persistent theme in the manga.

My point is, Skip Beat! has managed the rare feat of being unexpectedly skin crawling uncomfortable and yet painfully uninspired. And then there's the agonizing pace and the hundredth time Ren catches Kyoko doing something she thinks would disappoint or enrage him and gets this look on her face because she fears him berating her only he has no actual ground or reason to do so. Overall, I say extremely weak mid-series checkup, bail out now, or watch in fascination as Skip Beat! hits rock bottom of the shoujo seedy underbelly, and it will, mark my words.

Monday, February 4, 2013

K-drama, Because Everyone's Doing It, and Why Not: School 2013

So I've officially stopped pretending that this blog is anything more than a paper thin disguise for the fact that the Internet is in no shortage of people who are in no shortage of opinion. In case the title of this blog also hasn't clued you in already, I am not a nice person, and therefore am hijacking my own reclusive corner for manga to squee about TV. Korean TV.

K-drama School 2013
Episodes 1-3

School 2013 is causing quite an uproar over in Eastern media communities (for want of a better term.) I really have no idea why, diving in, because a screencap of two boys getting up in each other's business space cannot have had the same instant I'm clicking so hard the Internet would break effect on everybody. But first of all, to those subscribing to the same weakness, you are not getting any squeal worthy moment in the first three episode, I mean, one half of that pairing couple duo hasn't even made an appearance yet, and in the mean time, School 2013 has been an exercise in failed chemistry and disjointed storytelling.

Wait, not that the show is bad, no, it's not bad. It's even competent. In-jae, idealistic and not just a little bit naive, with a mere five years of experience under her belt, is undertaking homeroom duties of the de facto trouble making class of the school. Se-chan, superstar Literature teacher, jaded and cynical, is transferring to the same school due to violations of some education law that I don't know about but would surmise that it has something to do with him teaching a private class. It's an age old clash and attraction of the polar opposites in a highly charged environment, and if School 2013 was about just that, I would have bailed out at mark 25:37. What makes the episodes as compelling as they are is full-lipped, dreamy, distant, mysterious student Nam-soon (what, what, I'm allowed my objectification) who steals every scene he's in.

The thing about him is that he's maybe more dimensional than the rest combined, because he appears aloof, yes, he doesn't seem partial to more emotions than this-is-a-pain-in-my-ass or private smiles, he turns down what looks like a Bible for test taking saying he doesn't need it, and he is stony and unresponsive to threats of violence as well as expulsion. That's the way he was introduced. But Nam-soon isn't apathetic, if anything, he cares too much, and precisely which fact makes him misunderstood by his peers. Why else would he stand up for another student but not himself and refuse to go to class on the basis of morality? Later, and I don't think it's a spoiler because it's so early into the series, he apologizes to In-jea for having given her the cold shoulder for something she didn't do, trying to make it up by manipulating other students to show up to her class at his own expense. This is who he turns out to be, I am head over heels for characters and adore writing like that.

That kind of attitude is not holier-than-thou, it's just as naive as In-jae's. When Nam-soon says, (asked why he just wouldn't implicate Oh Jung-so, the bully, to save himself from the very real possibility of expulsion,) "School couldn't be that unjust," my heart breaks a little. It's so obviously a foreshadowing and it would shatter a character already so broken. I won't say anything about a resilient strength found inside a fragile vessel, because I have the feeling that Nam-soon is more of a shock absorber: he takes the beating and the misunderstandings because he can take it; and the thing about shock absorbers is, excuse the platitudes, I can see your rolling eyes from over here, thank you, that they have a threshold.

Which brings me to the premise of School 2013; it's supposed to be a realistic portrayal of Korean high school life, test cramming, bullying, and all. The bullying is depressingly prevalent in the education system, yes, but that doesn't mean it's interesting, since for me, like for every other TV viewer, this is its 100th iteration. That isn't saying that School 2013 is dull, that is saying that its subject matter appeals to me none at all. School 2013 isn't doing anything interesting thematically either. It has occasional moments where ideas and dialogues shine, but to few and far in between to count for much against the crippling blandness of the ideal v.s. the disillusioned. It isn't saying anything new about teaching. 

Let's stop discussing nonexistent philosophies now.

Because I will follow School 2013, and I will follow it for the characters. In-jea is quite something herself. Like Nam-soon, her flaw is caring, and she and Nam-soon are explosive together onscreen. They are not always on the same page, but they respect one another. In-jae gets that Nam-soon hid what he did for a reason, and Nam-soon gets that In-jae cares as his teacher. He responds to her as a student. He admires her strength, as do I, however tired the saying might seem I will maintain it because In-jae has proven herself. Credit goes to actress Jang Nara, who I believe has better grasp of her role than the entire cast, though that may be put down to the fact that her stereotype has dominated Korean TV since its inception.

The weak link is not actually Jung-ho whom I want to strangle with my bare hands, or the class clown whose acting is nails on chalkboard, but Se-chan, who is given great dialogues and the appearance of intelligence and hints to Past Events That Derailed His Dream of Being a Teacher. Depending on your view, that is either a lot of land to work with or very little, since his too is a stereotype, but, the point is, his part needs only be competent. Se-chan with pick-your-character-any-character-no-any-I-mean-it is chemistry free, his lines rote. When he and Nam-soon are made to mop the gym together, even charismatic Nam-soon looks uncomfortable bantering with a line delivery AI. His scenes with In-jae are likewise forced, and I'm not rooting for them as potential love interests at all, even though, let's face it, they will be.

Another claim I made is about the structure of the show, i.e., scenes seem thrown together without any regard for editing continuity. The first episode was particularly egregious. It bore the task of introducing 4 individuals, which is the reason, to be sure, but not the excuse for a bumpy 40 minutes with nothing for speak of for a build up or a climax. Now that it's got a good foundation, here's hoping School 2013 finds surer footing.

Worst moment of the show:

Teacher Jo about Nam-soon and Se-chan: they're two peas in a pod. Urgh, not at all. And so so cliched that I am vomiting inside my mouth just thinking about it. Like, teacher Jo was even looking down at them on a balcony speaking in a knowing voice and everything.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Manhwa Intervention in: Flowers of Evil

Manhwa is always going to be a little more fucked up than their manga counterpart, especially in subjects pertaining sexuality and general sanity. Case in point: Goong, wherein, spoiler alert, toward the end, they have on-screen sex, despite the Goong's previously tame tones. Shoujo manga the likes of Hot Gimmick, whose contents actually veer more questionably, can only reward fans with the Inappropriate Touches.

Flowers of Evil, boys and girls, is batshit, and definitely not safe for work.

Title: Flowers of Evil
Author & Artist: Lee Hyeon-Sook

Let me clarify that. Warning: incest, dubious consent. Here is the conversation I had one hour ago:

Devil me: stop me when I get into kill-me-now-kill-me-with-fire territory, okay?

Angel me: oh, you mean five paragraphs ago.

This post, on the other hand is safe for work, so don't go reporting it and all.

Synopsis: Twin brother and sister Se-Joon and Se-Wa are beautiful if not very sociable, and they sleep in the same bed. Their parents tell the more socially adept Se-Joon to stop indulging Se-Wa in her clingy possessive ways.

Se-Wa seems dependent on Se-Joon and their connection. She reasons that as all others are impure, they should not touch the twins. Thus begins the cycle of Se-Joon attempting to integrate himself with society, the miniature version of which is high school and a girlfriend, and Se-Wa pulling him back and trapping him with her. Both intentionally and accidentally, she only has to hurt herself and Se-Joon comes running, because he also ends up choosing her every time. At one point, that Se-Joon goes to his girlfriend's house to presumably have sex is seen as ultimate betrayal, as he becomes tainted.

Flowers of Evil follows Se-Wa's point of view religiously, a smartly evocative choice considering her whiplashes of emotion and her tunnel vision. Consequently the series is also extremely dramatic and divisive. Whether or not you read through to the end depends on your being able to identify with Se-Wa, perhaps not in that you share with her any characteristic, but in that you root for her romance with Se-Joon as that is her all-consuming purpose in the beginning.

Warning: discussion of incest

Flowers of Evil in my opinion, can counter the current deluge of big brother little sister(s) incest anime more effectively than your average heartwarming family drama can. It demonstrates why culture remains fascinated with incestuous relationships, especially ones between close siblings. But they are not always siblings, because the key word here is "close."

Writing about Supernatural fanfiction, Tosenberger surmises that incest between brothers Sam and Dean intensifies the concept of romance. An isolated family, possibly with complications that are kept secret to outsiders, is the cornerstone of incest. The factor is absolute claustrophobia: they have no one but themselves; it's always been them together, against the world. The constant proximity, note, is not forced. The ultimate ideal romance is that lovers choose each other time and again even when more normalized choices present themselves, which also explains a common trope of incest narratives, in which gentler outside forces are met with more resistance. The incest is compromised because it's fragile in the face of societal acceptance.

(Another note: I could have, like Tosenberger, used Gothic references, but the fact remains that this was the essay that introduced me to incest narratives. And so very intrinsic are manga readers and fanfiction writers linked.)

All these elements are present here: the family hides Se-Wa's heart condition, her transplant having been medically unethical; the twins distance themselves from others, even their parents; Se-Joon does choose Se-Wa, doesn't go through with sex with his girlfriend, and ends up asking a distraught Se-Wa for forgiveness. The angst associated with incest and Flowers of Evil derives mainly from the mutual psychological torture and the breaking apart of Se-Wa's world as she knows it, the forcibly opening up of that world.

Their relationship is unhealthy, perhaps not so much due to the actual incest as due to the fact that Se-Joon and Se-Wa make each other lesser versions of themselves, do not make each other happy. On one occasion, Se-Wa sabotages Se-Joon's girlfriend's medicine. And in retaliation to Se-Joon's leaving her, she demands that he commits suicide, to which he responds by walking into traffic. Se-Joon is no slouch himself, injuring the person who so much as touches Se-Wa and attempting to murder anyone who threaten their relationship. The very attraction of incest turns its downfall, in this case at least, because its consummation means seclusion and regression. Se-Wa's childhood friend "Sung-chan" who makes Se-Wa laugh and almost rescues both twins is portrayed much more favorably than Se-Joon. Unsurprisingly, Se-Joon views his warm influence as the ultimate threat.

Making Flowers of Evil even more problematic is another aspect of incest as romantic love, which many identify with the union of body and soul, and in the case of incest, in blood. Twins are in this way as closest to that ideal as possible. Romantic love is also associated with breaking barriers, the decisive act in incest to that purpose is sexual intercourse, so not only does consummation of that love mean regression, the manhwa consciously builds its climax toward the consummation. The very premise of incest ties it to titillation, which many understandably find objectionable.

Yet, Flowers of Evil, unabashed in its angst, reveling in the genre's pitfalls, is the method through which to understand incest in fiction. Inspecting incest is quintessential to inspecting it. By contrast, another exploration of the same theme, Koi Kaze, deftly countering critical scrutiny by presenting a tale of two people in love who happen to be siblings, is not, because incest in fiction is essentially a narrative kink, not a realistic, sincere love story. Koi Kaze addresses incest in fiction; Flowers of Evil epitomizes it.

On another note, the creator, Lee Hyeon-Sook, is undoubtedly a Se-Joon/Se-Wa shipper. Her chapter illustrations all depict the pair together, albeit with somewhat inadvisable Christian invocations, so even though the manhwa cautions against incest as par course, it has the connotations reinforced throughout, that incest is beautiful, and pure. This, by the way, is one reason to read Flowers of Evil: it is utterly gorgeous. Hyeon-Sook's lines are clean and sweeping, and her panels are uniquely minimalist, in that both interior furniture and page layout is sparse. As with the typical manhwa, more attention is paid to the hair and the clothes; the eyes, being more stylized, steal the focus. Hyeon-Sook's art stands out as actually achieving the elegance many manhwa seek.

(I wanted to post every week. My having neglected to last Friday just highlights the fact that I have no responsibility whatsoever and that last week was a shit show of jet lag and holiday debauchery.)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Why I Don't Follow Webcomics

For the intents and purposes of this post, webcomics are not merely comics found online, because I find all of my comics/manga online. I define them more strictly as comics which start out as web-only publications. It is then self-evident why I refuse to include them in my regular reading habits.

Okay, the title of this post is why I don't follow webcomics, not why I don't read them, because I do. They're great. I find them to be the smartest and most entertaining illustration of concept for many articles, especially TVTropes main entries. But I never ever seek out the title, and here's why:

1, Very few of them are good. I don't expect to spend half-days sifting through the comic among the comics, the strip among the strips. I let the Internet do that for me. Still, I could have just subscribed to Penny Arcade or xkcd, which leads me to

2, I have a stringent idea of what kind of graphic storytelling I enjoy. Very often I try to broaden my horizons, but there's no reason why I would purposefully read something that has the worse chance of my enjoying it.

3, This is the most important reason, and it is related to 1, too. Webcomics are unprofessional. Now, the backing of a corporation has no inherent corollary with artistic values, but it implies that the comic has run through a pair of editorial hands that believe somewhere someone sometime would like the product. Oh webcomics can have plenty of peers, but peers are not effective editors. Editors know the pitfalls of the medium, have the obligation to advise against shark jumps and ego. Editors filter for me, then the Internet filters that output again.

A lemma, most of the creators are amateurs, and while the greatest mangaka must start out somewhere, I would prefer not to be that place.

4, All of my previous, serious attempts at reading webcomics were failures. I had a predisposition to like them, but I couldn't. I don't remember their names; I do recall that they were well-respected in manga communities (i.e., not the joke that is Power Axis Hetalia).

Because only on the Internet this disclaimer is necessary: I am not advocating against webcomic. On the contrary, please continue what you're doing, please provide a supportive community for these artists, please grow and thrive and smack me in the face with my ignorance. I would love nothing more