Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: DEEPLY LOVING A MANIAC

I've been dying to post this review for a while.  There's a lot of bad BL out there, but it takes a real hack to create something that's so odd and ugly that it stands out from the crowd.  You Higashino is one of those hacks, and this but one of her many masterpieces of awfulness.

DEEPLY LOVING A MANIAC (Cho Maniac ni Aishite), by You Higashino.  First published in 2008 and first published in North America in 2011.



PLOT:

Morita is a shy, obsessive, neurotic otaku.  Sakura is a popular, confident athlete.  Against all the odds, these two have fallen for one another and demonstrate their affections for one another on a frequent basis.  Will that love stand up to bouts of doubt, cosplay, track and field, and attempted rape?

STORY:

Deeply Loving A Maniac doesn't so much have a story as it does a concept: a jock and an otaku are in hot, sticky, sweaty love with one another.  That's not a bad place to start, but the problem is that Higashino just stops there.  She doesn't build upon it in any meaningful way.  She doesn't explore who these characters are, she doesn't develop their relationship beyond random bouts of sex, or try to do anything beyond shoving in a lot of BL clichés.

Neither Morita nor Sakura receive any scrap of development or backstory beyond what I've noted above and the story suffers greatly for that omission.  There's plenty of story potential in such a pairing.  What would make a guy who would normally go for waifus and hugpillows fall for a flesh-and-blood man?  What would make a popular athlete notice a social outcast like Morita?  We never find out, as the two are already a couple when the story starts.  There's very little that challenges or changes that status save for a brief fight or two between them. 

It's also a very slight and episodic story.  It tends to follow a fairly predictable and noticeably one-sided formula: Sakura picks a fight with Morita over some petty thing, Morita tries to change himself somehow to make Sakura happy, Sakura sees the error of his ways, and the two have make-up sex.  The only time that Higashino changes the formula is when she has another man kidnap and attempt to rape Sakura because he resembles the animated character he created.  Worse still, she thinks that the best response to 'I saved you from imminent rape!' is 'So let's have sex right here in the rapist's bed!'

So Higashino didn't bother much with a plot, but she didn't want that to be obvious.  So like many a lazy BL mangaka, whenever she needed to fill space or wrap up a chapter, she can just make her leads screw.  She presumes that if you're distracted with sweaty guys tumbling, licking, and screwing one another in any way possible, then you simply won't notice the story's faults!  Of course, without any character or motivation behind their couplings, there is no passion between these two and thus no reason to give a damn about any of their sex scenes.  It takes effort to make so many explicit sex scenes so boring but that's what happens when you care more about sex positions and fluids than you do about character or plot.

ART:

Higashino's not a good writer, but it's her artwork that truly makes her a hack.  It's just off in so many ways.  The faces on the characters are so long and triangular that they look positively equine with their narrow eyes and huge lower lips.  They all look like they got their chins stuck in a vacuum.  Those horse faces are usually stuck on 'constipated' unless they are screaming in anger or orgasm. Their bodies aren't much better as their necks and shoulders are weirdly beefy and their limbs and torsos are bizarrely long.  If you don't believe me, look at the cover image above.  You tell me where the blond's hips are supposed to be because he either has a freakishly long torso or freakishly long legs, and both are feasible when it comes to bad BL anatomy. 

Speaking of anatomy, the sex scenes are unusually uncensored and unusually sticky and fluid-filled.  There's nothing wrong with showing sex as messy, but the sheer amount of semen, spit, and sweat on display here is the sort of thing you don't usually see outside of hentai doujin.  She all but fetishizes it.   Meanwhile, her pages as a whole are unfocused and her panels tend to stay claustrophobically close even when they're in the middle of sex.  She can't even frame her sex scenes in a way that makes them look the least bit erotic.  It's just an ugly book from cover to cover.

RATING:

It's said that the term 'yaoi' is an acronym for a Japanese phrase that roughly translates as 'porn without plot.'  Deeply Loving A Maniac certainly lives up to that term and then some.  It has only the barest wisps of conflict to keep things moving from one empty sex scene to the next as acted out by a bunch of hideous horsey creatures posing as men.  I can't imagine a single soul seeking this book out even as masturbation material, and it's best left that way.

This series was published by Digital Manga Publishing.  It is currently out of print.

Merry Month of Manga Review: FAKE

It's slightly late due to the fact that I was out of town on a trip, but it's May once again which means that we've reached Year Four of this little review blog.  That normally means a full month of random manga reviews, but this year I'm doing something a little different.  This time I'll be review a merry month of man-lovin' - that's right, 31 days of reviews of all things boys' love.  Let's kick things off then with one of the first BL works to make an impression in the states.  No, not Gravitation- the other one.

FAKE, by Sanami Matoh.  First published in 1994 and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:

Randy "Ryo" McLean is a soft-spoken, dutiful New York cop who is assigned to work with Dee Layter, a hot-head from the vice squad.  The two mostly get along, even if Dee can't seem to stop flirting with Ryo.  Together, the two start to take on some of the worst criminals and drug lords the city has offer, alongside the bratty street kid Bikky and his pickpocket friend Carol.  As their professional partnership grows, Ryo starts to question just how deep his feelings for partner might just run.

STORY:

So FAKE has a heady reputation to live up to, but has time been kind to it?  After all, the manga itself is over 20 years old and it's been over a decade since it first went into print.  Gravitation was just as old and looked (and felt) every part of it.  Personally, I can't say that FAKE has aged completely gracefully, but it's a hell of a lot more enjoyable than its counterparts thanks to a charming cast and a good sense of humor that builds upon its formulaic premise.

One thing I've always admired about FAKE is how well it balances the buddy cop action and the man-on-man action.  A lot of BL works will start with a premises but tend to let it fall to the side so that they can shove in more relationship drama or more sex scenes.  FAKE never forgets that it's a cop drama first and foremost and leaves most of the bits where Ryo and Dee flirt for the quieter, lighter bits in-between.  It's also more than willing to take its time to let Ryo and Dee take their partnership to its logical extreme.  The two never do anything more explicit than a kiss, and that lack of hot-and-heaviness actually helps the story instead of hindering it.  That means that the relationship itself becomes the antidote to the cop stuff, something light, breezy, and often quite fun.  That's something that BL as a genre often forgets to offer, so fun and breezy is something that I'll happily take anyday.

That's also a good thing because the buddy cop action onto itself is merely mediocre.  It's not bad but it's not stirring or original in any sense.  Of course, many buddy cops stories aren't coasting on the actual plot, but on the interplay between the leads.  In that sense, FAKE is much more successful.  Ryo and Dee make a good team both on and off the job.  They have personalities that complement one another nicely and there's a good give-and-take between the two that help to even out the more stereotypical seme and uke parts of their personalities.  What I like most about them though isn't their romance so much as the impromptu family group that builds up around the two. 

It's not unheard of for BL works to use children or younger siblings to bring their leading couples together, but generally they are cute, precocious little darlings that serve more as plot devices than characters in their own right.  That's why I'm so glad that Matoh gives Bikky and Carol just as much screen time and development as Ryo and Dee. They have histories and conflicts of their own and exist for something other than the sake of cuteness or a few quick jokes. They remain involved in the main plot by providing assistance or even revealing a few crimes in the making.   They even have their own romantic subplot that's separate from the main plot that brings a lot of humor and character in its own right.  Maybe I'm just biased because that same subplot features a scene where a teenaged Bikky ends up tasing a bear.  That's just awesome any way you slice it.  Meanwhile, Ryo and Dee's good cop/bad cop dynamic ends up getting carried over to their own relationships with Bikky and Carol.  Ryo ends up becoming the calm and caring father of the group, even going so far as to legally adopt Bikky.  Dee is more of a big brother type, teasing and fighting with Bikky as they both put up tough fronts.  Put it all together and you get something that more satisfying, funny, and adorable than any wide-eyed moppet.

FAKE didn't just live up to its reputation, it actually managed to exceed my expectations.  It's got a great and engaging combination of action, comedy, and BL that's anchored by a core group of four great characters.  It's a manga that even those who normally don't seek out BL can enjoy, and it's easy to see why to see why it was well-received both then and now.

ART:

Matoh's artstyle is not nearly as timeless as the story.  If anything, it's something that takes some getting used to.  I speak from experience here - it actually took me two tries to get past the first volume because the artwork initially turned me off from the story at large.  It's art that's firmly stuck in the 1990s where all the characters have these big, pointed lantern jaws, large yet weirdly narrow eyes, and bodies that are just a little too angular and stiff to be graceful.  It only gets worse when they mad, as these weird heads turn into bizarre cartoony caricatures with squiggly mouths.  It's a style that's way more flattering to the male cast members than the female ones.  Poor Carol in particular tends to look oddly mannish for someone meant to be a 12 year old girl.  Action's also not her strong point, as she tends to obscure a lot of it with speed lines.  Even her backgrounds can be a bit odd, as the shoujo-esque explosions of flowers tend to conflict with what is meant to be the gritty streets of NYC.  This series might have been a hit back in the day, but I suspect its very dated art keeps the newer fans and the license-rescuing publishers at bay.

RATING:

FAKE is genuinely good, so long as you can accept Matoh's artstyle for what it is.  She makes what could have been a rote buddy cop story into something special thanks to her flair for humor and her main characters.  It's the kind of BL work that holds up even today and even now it would still be a great introductory work for anyone curious about BL as a whole.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available.  All 7 volumes were published and are currently out of print.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review: SHOULDER-A-COFFIN KURO

4-koma is a format that generally sticks to one genre: comedy.  That's not to say that no one else has tried using it for more serious fare, or that they haven't made it work for them and not against them.

SHOULDER-A-COFFIN KURO (Hitsugi Katsugi no Kuro ~ Kaichu Tabi no Wa), by Satoko Kiyuoki.  First published in 2004 and first published in North America in 2008.



PLOT:

Kuro is a lone traveler, a witchy-looking girl accompanied by a talking bat, a coffin strapped to her back, and a lot of secrets.  As she travels the land, she helps those she encounters along the way with their problems.  She even (reluctantly) takes in a couple of child-like catgirls on their quest to find their 'father.'  No one knows the reason Kuro is travelling, but what they do know is that her quest is growing less and less lonely by the day.

STORY:

Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro is a true oddity even for a 4-koma manga.  It's not a comedy, but instead a wistful drama.  It doesn't read like a 4-koma for the most part.  Honestly, it's debatable if this needed to be a 4-koma in the first place.  In spite of that, the story works because Kiyuoki takes the story and the characters within it perfectly seriously.

That's not to say that there isn't any humor.  There are plenty of little comic moments tucked between the larger story arcs, and these play out in a fashion that's more familiar to 4-koma readers.  For the most part, though, this isn't a comedy but instead the tale of a single woman improving the lives of those around her as she travels the world.  It's not trying to build upon gags as it is building up the mystery behind Kuro and her journey as well as the emotional arcs of those around her.

Kuro herself is a mystery wrapped up in reluctant, somewhat wry blackness.  While she is helpful and empathetic towards others, she's not purposefully seeking to help others.  It's just that so often helping others helps her either move on to the next town or get her something that she needs.  She's also a rather lonely girl, although this is mostly self-imposed for reasons not yet explained.  She doesn't feel a need for friends or travelling companions, which makes it all the more ironic when she takes in what are basically a couple of toddlers with cat ears.  Of course, being precocious little dears the two end up worming their way into her heart and she starts treating them less like little cat-eared burdens and more like family.  Thus she manages to achieve an emotional arc while remaining a mystery thorough. 

She's far from the only character to get one, though.  The catgirls, Sanju and Nikiju, have one as well.  They were the creations of a mad scientist who like Kuro just fine, but they always keep expecting their 'father' to come back someday.  By the end, Kuro's distance combined with their child-like impatience leads them to run away, and when Kuro finds them again the two finally accept that Kuro is their parental figure for better or worse.  Sanju and Nikiju could have been just tokens, but instead they get an emotional arc all of their own.  Even some of the other incidental characters get something of one when we get to see them have a sort of reunion close to the end of the volume.  Most of them were plagued by loneliness and awkwardness before, but now not only can they connect with those in their own communities, but can reach out to similar folk whose lives were also touched by Kuro.  It's not only a nice callback for the reader, but it gives the volume a sense of closure despite being an ongoing story.  I may never understand why Kiyuoki chose this particular format for her story, but she puts more than enough effort into her story and characters that the format ultimately doesn't matter.

ART:

Even for a manga, Kuro's artstyle is very stylized.  All of the characters are practically chibi with their giant head and thin, almost unfinished limbs.  Their faces are mostly dominated by their enormous round eyes and their hair tends to be a collection of limp points.  Yet this heavily stylization works.  It gives the story another layer of whimsy and helps to soften some of the harder edges of the story.  Every character is unique - even Sanju and Nijiku have enough differences that you can tell one girl from the others despite being twins.  She even manages to get a lot of expression through despite the fact that faces here aren't really built for a lot of subtle acting. 

Kiyuoki also doesn't slack off on the setting.  Backgrounds are reasonably elaborate despite the small size of the panels, but never to the point of distracting from the real action.  Best of all, every house and alleyway is different from one other; every village Kuro and co. come upon has enough little differences to distinguish itself from the others.  Again, though, this just begs the question of why she used the 4-koma format in the first place. Even the coloring is interesting, as even the brightest, sunniest scenes have a sort of sepia tone to them.  Normally this would indicate something like a flashback, as the color tends to evoke old photography for most.  Here it's used more like an emotional dampener.  It keeps these scenes from looking or feeling too bright, as if Kuro's presence dims them a little just with her mere presence.  If that's a purposeful choice, then it's a rather clever one. 

RATING:

Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro has an artstyle and a format that would suggest whimsy but it's got more than enough character and emotion to it to make it a surprisingly effective drama.  It's an odd but underrated little gem of a series.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 5 volumes available.  All 5 are currently available and are currently in-print.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Review: LUCKY STAR

4-koma have long struggled to get any sort of foothold in the US.  It's easy to see why when so many of them were derivative and dull like today's selection.

LUCKY STAR (Raki Suta), by Kagami Yoshimizu.  First published in 2003 and first published in North America in 2009.



PLOT:

Konata, Tsukasa, Miyuki and Kagami are four very different high school girls, but together they united in friendship.  Together they deal with ordinary troubles like homework, the correct way to eat a chocolate cornet, or simply trying to deal with the fact that Konata views everything through the lens of video games and anime.

STORY:

After reading this manga, I'm genuinely baffled how anyone looked at Lucky Star and thought "This should be a show!  This'll be a big hit!"  The mid 2000s were chock-a-block with a million wannabe Azumanga Daiohs where no more than six girls based around a bunch of otaku-friendly quirks go through high school while enduring a bunch of predictable scenarios that tend to revolve around either the usual series of school events and/or a wackily incompetent teacher.  Lucky Star is no exception to that, yet it manages to distinguish itself by being even more pointless and boring than normal.

It's certainly not distinguished by its main cast.  All of our four leading girls are little more than personifications of one or two quirks and each of those quirks is hammered into the reader's mind for the sake of a joke.  Konata is a hopeless otaku!  Miyuki is smart but moe!  Kagami is angry and self-conscious!  Tsubasa is a ditz!  I hope you found those statements hilarious because Yoshimizu clearly thinks so and never develops any of them beyond those points.  You better think that Konata's gimmick in particular is the height of hilarity because more so than anyone else, you will see the most of her because she's meant to be the stand-in for the otaku readers.  That's why she's so genre-savvy, pervy, and obsessed.  She even openly shills the magazine this manga ran in along with the little giveaway discount cards that came with it!  Not even Digi Charat shilled this hard, and she was literally a mascot for a game store!

Maybe the one-note main cast would be less aggravating if there was a larger supporting cast to support them or at least to pad things out.  While we do see the occasional adult, they are just as much one-trick ponies as the girls.  The teacher likes playing video games too!  Konata's policewoman cousin is lazy!  It goes on from there.  There's also no overarching plot to give all of these so-called gags some sort of structure.  It doesn't even use the concept of the cycle of the school year to keep things moving along, which most of these 4-komas tend to do.  There's an occasional reference, but time just tends to drift along vaguely.  There are also some very time-specific gags, particular one where Konata's shows keep getting preempted by the (presumably 2004) Olympics.

Lucky Star's biggest failing is in its delivery of its jokes, such as they are.  Good comedy 4-komas live and die by their timing.  Some keep thing condensed and make each strip a stand-alone gag.  Others will hold on reactions and stretch things out over two or three strips, letting the rhythm rise and fall before delivering the final punchline. Lucky Star tends more towards the former, but it has no idea how to build on the girls' quirks into something resembling an actual joke.  Every punchline falls flat, and it's hard to tell how much of this is Yoshimizu's fault and how much of this is due to the absolutely AWFUL localization.  This might be one of the most stiff, even mechanical translations I've seen in a professionally published book.  Weirder still, there are a few points where they translate an honorific but leave in the original phrase in parenthesis.  For example, someone might say "sis (one-chan)" or "ma'am (sensei)."  It's needless and distracting, and it makes the whole thing feel like a first draft instead of a finished product.  Lord knows that Lucky Star wasn't terribly good to begin with, but Bandai did this weak material no favors and it shows in a big way.

ART:

Even for a moe 4-koma, Yoshimizu's character designs are just bizarre.  They look more like caricatures or chibis of cliché moe girls, with their crude, squishy little faces and their equally crude, almost semi-deformed reactions.  I have a hard time believing even hardened moe fans looking at this and calling them 'cute'.  At least all of them are distinct visually.  It's not just hairstyles that distinguish each girl, but also the shape of their eyes and other little things like Konata's mole.  It's hard to say much more about their designs because we don't see much else of them.  This manga is very much a collection of talking heads assembled in flat medium shots.  There are also few backgrounds to speak of, so most of the comic takes place in vast limbos distinguished only by grades of screentone.  Not even adding color helps much, as there are a few random color pages included.  Visually Lucky Star is just as flat and dull as its sense of humor.

PRESENTATION:

My issue with the translation is especially strange when you consider the size of the translation notes guide in the back.  It's one of the more thorough one's I've seen, but then I just have to wonder why they left all of these other references in but felt the need to leave the original honorific in place.

RATING:

Lucky Star is anything but lucky.  It's a one-note comedy with no sense of timing and a visual style that's distinct but far from appealing and a terrible translation.  Even fans of the show would be better off sticking with that instead of seeking out this series.

This series is published by Viz and formerly by Bandai.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 10 volumes available.  8 volumes were published.  The physical volumes are out of print, but all 8 volumes are available digitally via Viz.com.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Review: MERMAN IN MY TUB

It's April, so in honor of the fourth month of the year let's take a look at some 4-koma manga!  Now I could start out with the obvious choice here, but instead I was going to look at a more modern example of successful 4-koma manga.

Then I remembered that I had already reviewed Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun.

No matter, though!  I remembered that there was another amusing 4-koma that came out last year, albeit one that flew far further under the radar.

MERMAN IN MY TUB (Orenchi no Furo Jijo), by Itokichi. First published in 2011 and first published in North America in 2015.



PLOT:

Tatsumi thought he was just saving some random blond guy washed up on the riverside.  He didn't expect that man to be a literal merman.  He certainly didn't expect said merman (named Wakasa) to take up residence in Tatsumi's bathtub so he can eat Tatsumi's food, read magazines, and generally get overly giddy about the luxuries of everyday human life.  Things only get more complicated as Wakasa's other half-sea creature friends start showing up, along with Tatsumi's extremely possessive little sister.

STORY:

I actually reviewed this serieswhile back for seasonal reviews over at Infinite Rainy Day.  It had its ups and downs, but I did generally like it.  That being said, I would have never expected its source material to come out in English until Seven Seas picked it up.  Upon review, my opinion of this first volume is pretty much the same one I had of its animated counterpart.  It can be kind of irregular in quality, but it does land a good gag here and there and is weirdly endearing and cozy in its own right.

Tatsumi isn't so much a protagonist as he is a straightman.  After a while, his underreaction to...well, pretty much everything becomes a gag onto itself.  I can live with that, as it's a welcome relief from the standard manzai set-up that so many comedy manga like to use.  The real star of the manga is Wakasa, and Itokichi gets a lot of mileage out of this single character.  You get a lot of the expected fish-out-of-water jokes (pun not intended) and some of them are quite amusing, but he does get to be more than just mere comic relief.  Yes, Wakasa is childish and naïve, but he's a genuinely good-hearted soul who simply cannot contain his enthusiasm for the world around him and tries his best to share that enthusiasm with Tatsumi.  Amazingly, the relationship between Tatsumi and Wakasa is NOT played up for fujo fanservice.  This premise would seem to lend itself to a lot of slashiness, but aside from a few gags here and there (including one that evokes tentacle rape of all things), but it's one of the few places where the writing practices some real restraint.  That helps to keep the focus on the funny and not the shipping.

Still, this premise would have swiftly become boring and claustrophobic if it focused solely on Tatsumi and Wakasa.  That's why it was a good idea on Itokichi's part to regularly keep adding new half-fish people one at a time, and each of them brings their own flavor of humor.  There's half-octopus Takasu, who is handy with his tentacles; jellyfish-man Mizuni, who is calm, gentle, and forgetful; and tiny half-hermit crab Maki, who is reclusive and prickly but good at keeping the tub clean.  Again, the jokes aren't necessarily complex, but the jokes focus more on the personalities of the fishmen and not just loud wackiness.  There's only one addition to the cast that doesn't work: Tatsumi's little sister Kasumi.  Her only gag is that she's an insanely jealous little imouto, complete with all the awkward fanservice that tends to come with that role anymore.  These gags are not only incredibly awkward, but they don't fit the light tone of the story at all. I don't know why Itokichi felt the need to add this unneeded bit of otaku humor when the story (such as it is) works so much better without it.

Merman In My Tub is not necessarily the kind of manga that will leave you regularly laughing out loud, but it every so often make you smile and even feel a little warm and fuzzy.  It's got a great balance of humor and heart, little sister gags not withstanding, and the 4-koma format keeps the gags coming without getting stale.  Good 4-komas are not common, but this one manages to edge its way into that select group.

 ART:

4-koma manga is a format that doesn't demand great art, and Itokichi keeps things fairly modest because of that.  If the art has any particular problem, it's that the character designs (Tatsumi and Wakasa in particular) are rather overdesigned for such small, modest panels.  Wakasa in particular has this bizarre blond hair cone on the back of his head that never fails to baffle me.  At least she is very good at capturing Wakasa's liveliness on the page.  She loves to draw his big goofy expressions, moments of superdeformed reactions, and his tail thrashing around in involuntary glee.The characters tend to be rather tightly packed into the panels, Itokichi does liven things up through the use of crazy angles and the odd bit of dramatic lighting.  After all, there is only so much any artist can do when 90% of their story takes place inside a single, ordinary Japanese bathroom, but Itokichi manages to make the most of her limitations.

RATING:

Merman In My Tub manages to become more than pure fangirl bait by putting some care into the characters, some variety in the humor, and adding a little bit of heart to the whole thing.

This series is published by Seven Seas.  This series is ongoing in Japan with five volumes available.  Three volumes have been published and all are currently in print.