Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review: SENSUAL PHRASE

Oh Mayu Shinjo.  We meet again.  It's not the first time she's written a manga about musicians, so she was a natural choice for this month.  I just wish she didn't have so much of a taste for trashy romance.

SENSUAL PHRASE (Kaikan Furezu), by Mayu Shinjo.  First published in 1997 and first published in North America in 2004.



PLOT:

Aine is a romantic high school girl with dreams of becoming a great songwriter.  On her way to an audition, she nearly gets hit by a car.  Inside that car is Sakuya, the handsome lead singer of the popular band Lucifer.  The accident causes Aine to lose her lyric sheet, and at the concert she discovers that Sakuya found them and turned them into a song.  He immediately makes her the band's official songwriter, and he's equally determined to give her plenty of material to write about by attempting to seduce her at every turn.  This attention soon makes Aine the target of many jealous parties.  Will Lucifer's fandom and Aine's school friends tear their romance apart before it even begins?

STORY:

Sensual Phrase is the manga equivalent of a bad romance novel, even more so than the manga adaptations of actual Harlequin novels floating around the internet.  It constantly uses cheap shoujo clichés to further its thin plot along.  Maybe this is fun when you're a teenager, but as a grown woman I found it tedious.

Aine and Sakuya's relationship is shallow, dull, and deeply unbalanced.  Aine is only distinguished by her earnestness and a rather muddled understanding of her own desires.  Sakuya, on the other hand, is smugness personified from beginning to end.  The only connections the two seem to share is a common interest in music and a mutual lust for one another.  Even then, the latter is mostly expressed by having Sakuya molesting Aine whenever he can (whether she wants him to or not) and all but pissing on her to make Aine as 'his'.  Shinjo clearly recognized that this could make him look like the creep that he truly is, so she was determined to give him plenty of moments of heroism.  What that means in practice, though, is that she keeps throwing strange men and bitchy girls at Aine so that Sakuya can play at being a white knight while Aine whimpers on the sidelines.

When she's not writing yet another bit of cheap drama, she fills the space by having Aine and damn near every other woman in the story go into raptures about how Sakuya is so beautiful, talented, and all-around amazing.  Apparently he's so dazzling, so literally radiant that he overshadows all the other band members, which is why I couldn't tell you a damn thing about them.  From my experience, the more that a mangaka has to explain to the reader how awesome a character is instead of demonstrating it, the less awesome the character truly is.  Thus, her claims come off as incredibly weak.  They are further undercut by the fact that the lyrics on the page don't exactly convey any sense of excellence.  Mind you, this is due in part to the difficulties of translating lyrics from one language to another.  Like poetry, it's not enough to translate it literally.  It takes a flare for rhyme, rhythm and language to make it sound like something someone could sing.  This undercuts the notion that Aine is supposed to be so talented at writing love songs despite her youth and romantic inexperience. 

Sensual Phrase wants so badly to be a risqué showbiz romance, but I have a hard time believing that even the teen girl audience this was meant for would buy into this.  There's no passion, no genuine tension, and no personality to be found here, and without any of those it simply blends into the crowd of shoujo manga.

ART:

Shinjo's artwork is as clichéd as her storywriting.  The characters are exceedingly average-looking.  The girls are round and big-eyed, and the boys are stereotypical bishonen.  One quality that does distinguish Shinjo from the crowd is her commitment to fanservice.  Whenever Aine's clothes are ripped off (yes, this happens more than once), her undergarments and nipples are fully detailed.  Sadly, she's not even-handed with this sort of detail, as Sakuya's nipples are never to be seen despite being shirtless fairly often.  She doesn't bother with shading, so everything looks incredibly flat. 

PRESENTATION:

Shoujo Beat titles rarely include any sort of extras, but why on earth did Viz feel the need to pad this out with a short essay from some freelance journalist?

RATING:

Sensual Phrase is little more than a music-themed, modern-day bodice-ripper.  The story is nothing but sexist shoujo clichés and the art is plain and generic.  Sensual Phrase is about as sensual as a tuna fish sandwich.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 18 volumes available.  All the volumes were published and are currently out of print. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review: NODAME CANTABILE

OK, I've been slacking off.  Working on a wedding will do that to you.  Well, no time like the present then to take a look at one of the most notable titles to be lost in the Del-Ray/Kodansha takeover.

No, not Moyasimon.  No, not Mushishi either.  The other one.

NODAME CANTABILE (Nodame Kantabire), by Tomoko Ninomiya.  First published in 2001 and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:

Shinichi Chiaki is a brilliant music student, even by the high standards of the music school he attends.  He's determined to become a great conductor like his mentor.  There are just two problems with that plan.  First of all, Chiaki is afraid of flying, which prevents him from studying abroad with said mentor.  Secondly, Chiaki is so arrogant about his skills that he believes that none of his professors are good enough to teach him what he wants to learn.  His latest teacher flat-out kicks him out of his classes and sends him to Eito-sensei, a teacher renowned for taking in all the drop-outs and difficult kids.  It's through him that Shinichi meets Megumi Noda, aka Nodame.  She's something of an idiot savant, in that she's a simple-minded slob with little to no musical discipline, but she can learn just about any piece by ear and plays with an incredible amount of emotion.  Chiaki takes it upon himself to clean up Nodame's life and turn her into a proper piano student, but in doing so he learns just as much about himself and music as he does about Nodame.

STORY:

It really pains me to say this because I know a lot of manga reviews loved this series.  Still, I have to be honest, and this is the truth: I did not like Nodame Cantabile.  Why?  Because I couldn't stand the main couple.

I've gone over some of my personal pet peeves of fiction on this site, but one I don't talk about so much is my dislike of Manic Pixie Dream Girls.  They're one of the worst tropes in romance.  If I see one more story about a girl who isn't a girl so much as she is a collection of oh-so-wacky and/or countercultural quirks who exists mostly to cheer up some sad-sack guy, I'm going to puke.  So already Nodame Cantabile was at a disadvantage because Nodame is very much a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, minus the Manic part.  Her quirk is apparently living like a child, from the way she lives in a apartment made of trash piles and mold to her infrequent bathing habits to the way she steals food from friends even when asked not to.  This gives her relationship with Chiaki a paternalistic air that makes the prospect of a romance between these two hard to stomach.  Worse still, once Chiaki enters her life, Nodame imprints on him like a puppy.  She thrives on the attention he gives her, no matter whether it's positive or not.  When he's not around, she's depressed to the point that she can barely bother with everyday tasks, much less playing music.  I understand that Ninomiya means for all of this to be charming and that we're supposed to overlook her quirks for the sake of her talent, but I have to agree with Chiaki: Nodame is a disaster of a girl.

That's not to say that Chiaki is much better.  He's a selfish, stuck-up, neurotic little asshole.  You have to wonder why he even bothered with this school if all he can do is complain about his professors while idolizing his childhood mentor.  You also have to wonder why he wouldn't bother with some actual therapy to deal with his fear of flight considering how blatantly it is holding him back from his dreams.  That being said, his character arc here is handled far more gracefully than Nodame's.  By interacting with her and the other trouble students, Chiaki is forced out of his comfort zones and to think outside the box.  He discovers within himself the ability to teach others without necessarily sacrificing their own unique styles.  He's still kind of an asshole by volume's end, but he's clearly on a path to becoming far less of one.  I just wish that it didn't have to come at Nodame's hands, as being around her tends to bring out a lot of his worst qualities in the name of 'comedy.' 

So I have some issues with the characters, but what about the music itself?  After all, this is a story about music students.  As such, it should be able to communicate some of the passion and beauty of their performances.  Sadly, Ninomiya isn't quite up to the task.  She can describe the music all she wants and draw the characters making weird faces as they lose themselves in the performance, but like so many others before her, she can't quite make up for the lack of audio.  Unless you've got the pieces queued up to play along, something will always be lost.

Nodame Cantabile has such a fine reputation, and it's truly a shame that I find it so frustrating.  The biggest problem was that Nodame and Chiaki drove me nuts most of the time, and because of that I couldn't get invested in anything going on between them.  Ninomiya clearly knows her stuff when it comes to classical music, but her approach to romance is somewhat lacking.

ART:

Nodame Cantabile's art is simple but effective.  The characters are simple and plain, and sometimes there are still some rough lines left in, as if Ninomiya didn't erase them after inking the page.  Still, there are little bits of weirdness that give the characters a bit of charm, such as the weird faces Nodame makes while performing.  She doesn't get terribly fancy when it comes to drawing clothes, but she clearly loves using fancy screentones to decorate Nodame's dresses.  This plainness is contrasted with the level of loving detail she gives the instruments, which are clearly drawn from reference.  She also tries to capture the quality of a performance through doodles and screentones, be they nauseous swirls, shoujo sparkles, or crackling lightning.  It doesn't entirely make up for the lack of literal music, but it's a good idea and it's executed fairly well.

RATING:

It's weird.  As much as I didn't like the leading couple, I didn't entirely hate Nodame Cantabile.  I get what it's trying to do, and as far as Chiaki is concerned it's actually working fairly well.  It's just that the romantic element didn't work for me at all, and no amount of visual charm could completely compensate for this.

This series was published by Del-Ray.  This series is complete in Japan with 23 volumes available.  16 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: FULL MOON O SAGASHITE

Last month required reading a lot of heavy drama, so let's lighten things up by looking at some manga about music and musical performance.  Surely I could find something cute and fun to read to kick things off!  So why the hell did I pick up this series expecting that?

FULL MOON O SAGASHITE (Furu Mun o Sagashite), by Arina Tanemura.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:

Mitsuki Koyama might be the most tragic girl around.  She's an orphan living with her strict grandmother and separated from her only friend by an ocean.  On top of that, she's been diagnosed with throat cancer at the tender age of 11.  She could remove the cancer with surgery, but doing so would remove her ability to sing.  Mitsuki loves singing too much to do so, even if it means her inevitable death.  Fate intervenes for her in the form of two shinigami who make her a deal.  Mitsuki has only a year to live, but they will give her the ability to age herself up and hide her identity so she audition for a music label.  She can pursue her dream of becoming an idol, but at the end of year she will peacefully and willingly die.  For Mitsuki, any deal is worth it if she can share her song with the world and find her beloved long-lost friend.

STORY:

It's been a while since I've tackled an Arina Tanemura work.  The last time I looked at one, I lamented how she had a terrible tendency to drown out any good ideas or interesting concepts with a zillion other plot threads and a hectic sense of pacing.  From what I see here, it seems that this a not just a problem with Sakura-Hime in particular, but with Full Moon as well.

Mitsuki is just unbelievable - literally!  First, there's her actual personality, which is so saintly and perfect that it would make even Tohru Honda puke.  Then there's her backstory.  I've seen opera heroines with less tragedy in their lives than her!  It's not enough for her to be an orphan, but she also has to have an unpleasant foster parent AND pining for a lost love AND suffering from terminal cancer!  It's a blatantly naked attempt at building sympathy for Mitsuki to compensate for her lack of personality, and it's almost laughable in execution.  It's especially misguided when you consider that Mitsuki does have something that's genuinely tragic: she knows when she's going to die.  Even if she succeeds as an idol singer, she knows that it will not last and every day is one more closer to her death.  That's genuinely tragic and that's something that should tinge her career with sadness, even regret.  It's too bad then that Tanemura pretty much forgets about this from the moment that she wins her audition.  There's no time to be sad - Mitsuki is going to be a STAR!

The idol singer parts of her life aren't handled much better.  They're either mined for cheap comedy (like Mitsuki's drunken manager) or for cheap drama (such as the rival girl who passive-aggressively bullies Mitsuki).  Meanwhile there's also the plotline with Meroko and Takuto, the two shinigami making this all possible.  Meroko has a giant obvious crush on Takuto, and Takuto is not only oblivious to all this, but is hinted to have a connection to Mitsuki in his own past.  The unrequited love angle doesn't just adds another complication to a plot already full of them, but it also overshadows the more compelling one that's just about Takuto.  I just hope that the weirdly romantic tone of it is entirely in my imagination and not intentional because MITSUKI IS FREAKING 12 AND I DON'T CARE IF HE'S A SUPERNATURAL BEING, THAT IS CREEPY.

There truly is a germ of a good idea in Full Moon, where a young girl gets a chance to live out her dream before her imminent death. The problem is that as a writer, Tanemura can't give it the space or the solemnity it needs to truly shine.  Instead she would rather keep adding complications and blatantly going for the heartstrings in the hopes of keeping the audience distracted.

ART:

My general opinion of Tanemura's art hasn't changed.  She still draws the same cutesy characters with their overly simple faces that are dominated by those enormous saucer eyes.  She still seems to prefer drawing fancy, frilly dresses over drawing the characters wearing them.   It's not only Mitsuki that suffers from this; the shinigami wear silly costumes that are meant to comfort dying children but instead look like the early 90s exploded on them.  She also still can't be bothered with backgrounds and instead just pastes every sort of screentone and effect possible over the empty space.  The panels are still hopelessly cluttered that it sometimes becomes difficult to follow.  The only major difference is that the artwork of Full Moon doesn't feature the fine detail that served as the saving grace for Sakura-Hime's art.  It seems that Tanemura's artistic flaws are not a new thing, and it's a style that just always rubs me the wrong way.

RATING:

Arina Tanemura frustrates me in a way that few mangaka do.  She's not a complete hack, but it seems that from the very start she was always drowning out the good qualities of her works with too much STUFF.  Full Moon o Sagashite is no exception to this and because of that I can't recommend it.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available.  All 7 have been published and are current in print and available in e-book form.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: PRETTY MEN FIGHTING DIRTY

Sakira is an up-and-coming BL mangaka who got a boost overseas when DMP made a quartet of her works the focus of a Kickstarter campaign.  I contributed and was originally hoping to have the books in time to cover them for this month.  Alas, the release got delayed, but in the mean time I can check out a digital-only title of hers.

PRETTY MEN FIGHTING DIRTY (Otokomae Dorowars!), by Sakira.  First published in 2012 and first published in North America in 2013.



PLOT:

In this collection of stories, a mountain-dwelling potter learns to connect to both his art and his desires through the administrations of a rich eccentric on the run.  When the eccentric's brother tries to follow in his footsteps, he goes a little too native and requires a lot of up close and personal rehabilitation.  Finally, we follow the story of a man who finds himself the 'stepmother' to two very difficult young men who want to prove that they are just as dominant as their father.

STORY:

Pretty Men Fighting Dirty is a collection that could more accurately be titled Buff Guys Acting Weirdly.  There's an energy to each story that I can appreciate, but they also tend to come with a lot of moments that leave me baffled, if not feeling worse.

The titular story is the first one, and right off the bat it sets a weird tone.  Both Handa (the potter) and Kozue (the rich eccentric) are pleasant enough people.  Their story is lighthearted, even silly at times.  There's even a nice, cyclical quality to the notion of Kozue helping Handa find his artistic inspiration and in return Handa giving Kozue a way to escape the stress of his responsibilities.  The problem is that the moment things start getting raunchy, she tends to run off the rails.  Sometimes it's merely by puncturing the mood.  For example, a tender moment between the two swiftly becomes Kozue wildly ravishing Handa in the middle of a goddamn pond.  Other times she does something downright silly, like Kozue helping Handa find his inspiration by giving him a handjob with clay.  Moments like this took me right out of the work and it was hard for me to get back in afterwards, and that was even before the follow-up chapter about Kozue's brother regaining his memories through a blowjob.

Where this collection truly lost me was sadly during it's longest narrative, "A Loving Household."    It's all about Hikaru, a young femme gay man who not only manages to find love with a buff middle-aged divorcee named Tetsuji, but then has to learn how to be a mother figure to Tetsuji's two moody teenage sons.   It's a premise with potential for a lot of sweetness, right?  Well, any sweetness goes straight out the door when Hikaru meets Tetsuji in part by being kidnapped by a mad gay gigolo.  This is then compounded by the fact that father and sons make up by bonding over their mutual desire to molest their new 'mother' and they all become one big quasi-incestuous family. If the tonal whiplash in these stories were any more extreme, my neck would have snapped like celery.  A better writer might be able to put off the combination of lightheartedness and crazy hentai logic, but Sakira is simply not at that level.

Even the shortest stories suffer from this.  For every "Cosplay Bride," where a couple of friends-with-benefits comfort each other with sex after the end of an engagement, there's an "Unseen Love" where a pervy uncle manipulates his clueless teenage nephew into sex, or a "Let's Go To the Proctology Clinic!" where a man falls for his doctor during his treatment for hemorrhoids.  I certainly was never bored while reading this, but her choice of kinks and hard shifts into smut kept me from truly enjoying it.

ART:

I could totally get behind an artstyle like Sakira's.  She's part of a subgenre that's been dubbed 'gachi muchi.'  Literally that means 'muscley-chubby,' but in practice it means that most, if not all of the characters are well-toned, if not outright buff.  I am perfectly OK with this becoming a trend.  You can't really draw muscle-bound guys without having some working knowledge of how they look and move on a human body, so you don't get a lot of the horror-show anatomy that's become so common in BL.  It also makes all these guys look like actual MEN and not perfect anime-friendly bishonen, which personally makes them far more attractive to me than usual.  She also draws great faces, ones that  are open and lively and surprisingly varied.  She's also not shy about her smut.  She loves to show off the action from all angles, and she draws every wang and spurt in almost graphic detail.  Well...it would be graphic detail if not for the fact that she flippantly censors them with only a small strip or two of white bars.  This censors about as much as bandage on a boob, but it's more about obeying the letter of the law than the spirit.

It's a good thing that she has so many good qualities going for her because her tendency towards indulgence is easily her biggest sin.  Once she gets to the sex her paneling gets far sloppier.  She's determined to fit as much explicit action into each panel as possible and it all gets a bit chaotic after a while.  It's a shame because otherwise her pages are composed in a lively and engaging way.  Characters rise and stretch out of their panels.  She juxtaposes close-ups in a way that simulates the back-and-forth of a conversation or form a cascade of increasingly tight reactions.  Angles switch with abandon, and she's good enough at perspective that her characters look fine at all of them.  The only thing that really suffers are her backgrounds, but there's so much stuff going on up front that it's hardly missed. 

RATING:

Pretty Men Fighting Dirty is not a collection for the romantics.  No, it's for the BL fans who want some high-energy, well-drawn, well-muscled, and raunchy smut and are willing to ride out the weird plot twists to get it.

This book is published by Viz under their SuBLime imprint.  It is currently in print as an ebook through SuBLime's website.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: LOVE MACHINE

So do you remember Chobits? Did you ever wonder what a BL version of that might look like, particularly if you took out all the good parts?  Well do I have a manga for you!

LOVE MACHINE (Etowa), by Amayo Tsuge.  First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2009.



PLOT:

Kokuyo is a cranky, reclusive author whose grueling schedule has often landed him in the hospital.  His friend Saeki tries to help him by giving a 'replicant' named Shiro, an android that will take care of his chores and keep an eye on his health.  Kokuyu initially resents Shiro's presence, but after a while he finds himself caring for Shiro.  Kokuyo finds himself wondering if it's possible to love an artificial being?  Is it possible that Shiro could be capable of returning them as well?

STORY:

So this is neither the first or the last work to ponder the possibility of falling in love with a robot.  Hell, it's not even the first manga to go there.  So what makes this one any different?  Well, I guess it's distinguished mostly by its ineptitude and its inability or unwillingness to explore the problems with a human/robot romance.

The relationship between Kokuyu and Shiro doesn't so much progress as it does jump from one bullet point to the next.  The two of them are such extremes that it should take some time for Shiro's gentility to wear Kokuyu's grumpiness and win him over.  Tsuge doesn't want to bother with that, though.  All it takes to win Kokuyu over is a simple robot health crisis, and he almost instantly interprets that affection as love.  At least Shiro's change in feelings are explained slightly better, as he interacts with similar androids who have themselves learned to love.  The story also implies that this breaks their brains to the point where they start to lose their memories, but who cares!  It sets enough precedent for him to jump to that conclusion that he must love his master and that they must have sex to demonstrate it.  It's a good thing that he's fully functional and anatomically correct, or else the story wouldn't be able to shove in any sort of sex!  You can't simply jump from plot point to plot point as drastically as Tsuge does here.  Even if the reasoning is bad or weak, you still need some sort of transition or explanation to justify such extreme turns in such extreme (and quite frankly shallow) characters.

This is bad enough, but there's also all sorts of problems with a relationship between a human and an android that she doesn't even bother to bring up, much less address.  Say what you will about works like Chobits or Absolute Boyfriend, but they do at least address some of the issues that come with such a relationship.  They suggest that substituting an artificial lover for one of flesh and blood is not entirely healthy, that those who do so may have to make some serious sacrifices, and the question of just how much these feelings are due to programming and how much is due to some sort of free will.  They might not always stick with those ideas, but they consider them long enough to stick with the reader.  Then there's Love Machine, which doesn't even let such things cross its mind for a moment.  Nope, Kokuyu loves Shiro and Shiro loves him and that's enough for everyone!  What's really strange is that Tsuge does kind of address it in the second half.  There she focuses on Seiki and his own support android.  He's far more friendly, so with him it's not so much about the robot reforming the man so much as it is about him coming to regard his android like a sentient being.  His falling in love is handled with more sensitivity and more gravity than the previous one.  It should also be noted that when his bosses suggest turning these androids into sexbots, he's horrified at the notion.  At least he he knows exploitation when he sees it.  Honestly, I wondered why this guy wasn't the protagonist.

The whole thing is finished off with a tossed-off story about a teenage vampire and his boyfriend, and the only thing I took away from that was that the boyfriend was so horny and dumb that he's perfectly willing to risk anemia just so he can bang his wee little boyfriend on the school roof.  It's a rather silly and underwhelming end to a book that mostly frustrated me.  Love Machine has a premise that's ripe for thoughtful drama, but it chooses instead to ignore that all just so it can jerkily follow a very basic romantic trajectory. 

ART:

Tsuge's not much better at sequential art than she is at storytelling.  Her characters are flatly drawn and her faces are not only almost always the same, but very stiff and occasionally just plain weird-looking.  I'd complain that Shiro and all his fellow androids look the same, but as androids made in the same line this actually makes some sense.  She's clearly got a preference for pairing up her older semes with ukes that look so tiny and boy-like that it becomes kind of creepy.  Even the high school vampire one suffers from this.  Her panels and pages don't look bad, but the backgrounds are just as flat as the characters themselves and the panels lack any sort of real imagination or beauty to them.  It's just a mundane looking book with a few odd and awkward spots here and there.

RATING:

Love Machine has a good premise that's utterly wasted on this mangaka.  She doesn't have the writing chops to give the story the sort of depth it needs and her artwork lacks both the skill and the charm it would take to overcome her poor writing. 

This book was published by Aurora Publishing.  It is currently out of print.