Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: KYO KARA MAOH!

You what you almost never see in manga?  All-male harems.  You'd think that at least some yaoi books would try such a thing, but most of those focus on one-on-one relationships.  Those that aren't meant to be explicit tend to be just 'cute guys doing cute things together.'  Well, all except THIS one.

KYO KARA MAOH! (Demon King From Today!), based on the light novels written by Tomo Takabayashi & drawn by Temari Matsumoto.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.



PLOT:

Yuri Shibuya only meant to save a classmate from a couple of bullies.  He couldn't have anticipated that he would get sucked into another world during a swirlie, much less to find strange men declaring him the reincarnation of the Demon King and the new ruler of their world.  Now Yuri has to adapt to his new status along with strange new customs, unexpected connections between his new world and his past, an accidental engagement to a boy, and a duel to the death with his new fiancée.

STORY:

I remember hearing about this series years ago, back when I would frequent Livejournals dedicated to mocking and criticizing bad fanfiction.  It was usually mentioned in the same breath as shows like Weiss Kreutz and Gundam Wing, so I knew coming into this that this manga would be more than a little homoerotic.  What I couldn't have anticipated was that the homoeroticism was literally the only notable thing about Kyo Kara Maoh

The premise will be all too familiar: an ordinary Japanese kid gets sucked into a magical world through unusual means where they discover that they are some sort of savior figure.  The rest of the story details how they save the world and usually get a significant other in the process.  The only major twist that Kyo Kara Maoh adds is that the protagonist is a boy instead of a girl.  They didn't even change the gaggle of bishonen which normally serve as love interests, they just made their pursuit less obvious by framing it as a power struggle between those who support Yuri versus those who oppose him.  I still might have been willing to go along with that, had it not been for the utterly clumsy way this writer handles worldbuilding.

I was not surprised to learn that this was based on a light novel, because the story is so hung up on explaining everything that it barely moves forward.  The reader is constantly assaulted with  monologues from the supporting cast explaining the world and the premise to our audience stand-in Yuri.  Oh sure, they could have made the exposition interesting by showing instead of telling since manga is a mostly visual media.  They could have even made Yuri a more proactive character by having him do his own research and ask more questions about his new realm, but those would be intelligent choices.  No, instead they chose to more or less copy and paste chunks of Takabayashi's prose straight into the characters' mouths.  This tactic not only makes for incredibly lazy storytelling, but it's tedious and intellectually insulting that Takabayashi thinks that the reader won't understand anything unless she literally stops the story to explain it to us.

It's not like her concept of a magical fantasy world is all that new and exotic to begin with.  The concept of a human boy coming to rule as king over a world full of demons sounds neat, but it's ruin when it turns out that the demons look (and for the most part, act) like normal humans and they even play baseball.  OK, in all fairness this is due to the influence of Conrad, one of Yuri's supporters who has the ability to travel between worlds and has been doing so since before Yuri was born.  Still, Takabayashi could have done a far better job showing the influences of the human world bleeding into the demon realm without it all leading up to an awkwardly executed character moment between Conrad and Yuri.  Baseball and demon kings don't mix well without some concentrated effort on the part of the author, and it's clear that Takabayashi didn't even try.

The only place where she did try was with the homoeroticism, and even then that's not saying much.  The problem is I suspect we're meant to titter over the relationships instead of the characters themselves.  It certainly would explain why Yuri is utterly bland.  Sure, he's meant to be the audience insert character and thus kind of blank and malleable, but aside from a vague sense of nobility we don't really learn anything about him as a person.  He doesn't even achieve anything under his own power, as his title is handed to him upon arriving and he wins his duel through the reincarnation equivalent of a deus ex machina.  I can't see such a blank slate rising to become leader of a book club, much less the ruler of an entire world. 

This same lackadaisical approach to character writing also explains why the rest of the cast is composed of simple archetypes.  Conrad is never anything but the gentle father figure, his brother Wolfram is cast as the resident tsundere, and Conrad's friend Gunther becomes nothing more than a walking gay joke with his weepy, flamingly gay attitude.  There's even a character to serve as a stand-in for all the fujoshi in the form of Celi, Conrad and Wolfram's mother.  The story never lacks for characters, but there's not one bit of personality to be amongst them.  It's little wonder then that they're defined more by their orientation than their actions or thoughts.

It's hard to imagine that this story ever could have been part of some fangirl craze, no matter how fleeting, if simply because it's so devoid of character.  The premise is derivative and those characters that aren't blank slates are as deep and dimensional as the paper they're printed on.  Were it not for its higher than normal levels of ho-yay, I doubt anyone would remember it at all.

ART:

After reading this, I was not surprised to learn that aside from doing the artwork for this manga as well as the original light novels, Temari Matsumoto is mostly known for doing yaoi.  It shows on every page, and that's not really a good thing.  Her character designs are exactly what you expect for a yaoi artist - vaguely handsome, tall to the point of gangliness, chins sharp enough to cut glass, and awkwardly long, spidery hands.  I swear some of the character are so awkwardly tall that they have to slouch and crouch to stay in frame, which only makes them look more awkward.  Maybe that was simply because the panels tended to be small and cramped in the first place, since the exposition demands that half the panels be taken up with speech bubbles.  That leaves Matsumoto little room to visually elaborate on Yuri's new realm, which means that what few backgrounds we get are rather anonymous looking.  Not even the size and splendor of a castle seems to come through in her art.  She can't even capture what little action there is to be had, as the characters seem to drown in speed lines and big, jagged magical effects.  A magical story like this needs equally magical art to bring it to life, and Matsumoto simply doesn't have that level of talent.

RATING:

Man, anime and manga fangirls must have been really desperate for a bit of ho-yay in the mid 2000s if they felt the need to latch on to a series like this.  The story lacks character and subtlety on every level and the art is decidedly average.  Maybe it's precisely because of lackluster manga like this that we don't see a lot of all-male harems.  Maybe that's for the best.

This series is currently published by Viz, formerly by Tokyopop.  This series is complete in Japan with 16 volumes available.  Tokyopop released 7 volumes, and all are out of print.  Viz has published 6 volumes in e-book form, and all are currently available through Viz.com.

Manga like this and much more can be found at RightStuf.com!  Any purchase made through this link help support The Manga Test Drive!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Review: AKAME GA KILL!

Some harem series have no pretenses about what kind of manga they want to be.  They are open about the fact that they're just there to serve up some fanservice alongside their wish-fulfillment fantasies.  Others try to hide their origins in the hope of attractive readers outside of the usual crowd, although this disguise rarely ever works. 

AKAME GA KILL! (Red-Eye Kill), written by Takahiro & art by Tetsuya Tashiro.  First published in 2010 and first published in North America in 2015.



PLOT:
Tatsumi is a country boy who's hoping to make his name as a soldier of fortune in the bustling capital city.  Soon enough his boyish dreams are punctured when his money is stolen, he's taken in by a noble girl, and ends up shanghaied by the assassins of Night Raid.  Night Raid is a vigilante group determined to hunt down and kill those in the capital who use their unearthly strength, influence, and wealth to kill and exploit as many as possible while perpetuating the civil war that tears their country apart.  Now Tatsumi must find a way to use his skills to help Night Raid save their nation.

STORY:
I'm endlessly amused by the parade of modern harem manga that try to be sneaky about being harems.  They try to lure in readers with the promise of action heroes, sci-fi dystopias, or sprawling fantasy, promising that this particular series will be different.  In the end, though, it ends up mostly being about no more than six girls who all want to bone the leading man to various degrees.  Akame ga Kill! is no exception to this rule.  It promises us plenty of bloody grimdark action, but in the end it ends up being nothing but paper-thin characters enacting a preteen's idea of a serious story.

Part of the problem with this series is that the lead has all the faults of your standard shonen hero without any of the charms.  I expected him to be dumb and naïve, sure, but what makes him really aggravating is that he's got an ego far greater than any talent he might possess.  He's utterly convinced that he's hot shit, even after he joins Night Raid and gets to see the girls' deadly talents firsthand.  He's in desperate need of a reality check and until this series provides it, he's never going to stop being annoying.

As for the other members of Night Raid, they tend to fall in line with the usual assortment of otaku fetish types.  Do we have a quiet, stoic girl who is inordinately talented?  Check.  How about a twin-tailed tiny tyrant of a tsundere?  Check.  What about a busty, lusty, boozy older sister sort?  Check, and she's a catgirl to boot!  They even include a token gay guy.  Of course, he's never considered to be a proper love interest but instead is there to hit on Tatsumi for the sake of a terrible, homophobic running gag.  Some of them do get a bit of backstory, but it's delivered in the most ham-handed manner possible: through story-stopping monologue.  The only mildly interesting thing about those backstories is the running theme of Night Raid members being former imperial assassins.  It makes things a little more interesting.  After all, these girls (and guys) not only chose to rise up against their oppressors, but also to wield the skills they taught them against their former masters and maybe earn some forgiveness for their former actions.  Sadly, any implications about such motivations has been left for future volumes, so for the moment the girls demonstrate any personality facets beyond their respective stereotypes.

Even the villains are treated like cardboard cut-outs.  While some of them are initially presented as normal people like you and I, they end up turning on a dime once confronted with their crimes.  At that point, they turn into cackling madmen who revel in their evil acts because...I don't know, evil for the lulz.  Instead of exploring their reasons for evil, the writer just piles on more evil by showing them committing random acts of murder, torture, rape and various other forms of abuse.  Not even Tatsumi's childhood friends are immune from it, as they are quickly killed off so that Tatsumi will always have a cheap and ready source of motivation.  These acts might be horrifying, but they're presented so frequently and in such a casual off-hand manner that all the horror is utterly negated.

Still, it can't be all action all the time.  There's plenty of downtime between jobs for Tatsumi to learn about the others, and it starts to feel a bit like a sitcom.  We're meant to laugh as Tatsumi is forced to perform menial work or pranked by the others as he yells and grumbles, but most of those jokes are built upon the girls' given stereotypes.  Instead of taking this time to build something resembling deeper relationships or to do some well-needed world-building, we get lame otaku jokes.  It's a shame because this world is in desperate need of some building, as Takahiro couldn't even be bothered to give proper names to the setting.  The country, the capital city, the parties involved in the war, even the Empress that rules over them all doesn't get the courtesy of a name. 

This manga just reeks of authorial disinterest from beginning to end.  No one and nothing is fleshed out beyond what is absolutely necessary, and every plot point and character never stretches beyond their respective stereotypes as they engage in a childishly sensational battle between good and evil.  Akame ga Kill! wants to thrill the reader, but who would be thrilled by such a half-assed story?

ART:
That same lack of effort extends to the artwork as well.  All throughout the book, I was constantly distracted by the characters - their faces, to be specific.  Ostensibly, there's nothing all that special about them.  They're all drawn in the same flat, angular, and overly simple manner.  Nonetheless they go off-model with shocking frequency, and it bothered me.  It also didn't help that all these deadly assassins dress like they cut up pieces from Hot Topic, something that stands in stark contrast to the Ye Olde Fantasy world they inhabit but certainly helps the reader objectify them when and wherever possible.

Worse still, Tashiro cannot draw an action scene to save his life.  He tends to blur figures to give the impression of speed and strength, but he went so far with it that it's difficult to distinguish who is fighting whom.  He also tends to shift angles wildly during those fights, often settling on high overhead views, and this combined with the poorly drawn character models only adds to the confusion.  Sadly, the art here feels like Tashiro just dashed it off as quickly as possible to meet a deadline.  He didn't care about the quality or making all the details match, he just wanted done and away from him as soon as possible.  If he didn't care and the writer didn't care, why the hell should the reader do so?

RATING:
The title suggests bloody action, but the end result is little more than a half-baked harem mixed with equally underdone shonen elements that want to be much more serious and grim than it truly is.  Unless you are a dull and deeply gullible preteen, you'll find this series as tedious as I did.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 11 volumes available.  The first volume is available, and is currently in print.

This volume and many more like it are available through RightStuf.com!  Any purchases made through these links help support The Manga Test Drive!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: LOVE HINA

I know, I know, I skipped last week.  Part of it was the fact that I've been playing a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of Xenoblade Chronicles, which is as good as people say.  The other part is that I've been kind of dreading this series, and that dread extends even to writing up the review.

LOVE HINA (Rabu Hina), by Ken Akamatsu.  First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2002.



PLOT:

Keitaro Urashima wants to get into Tokyo University so he can fulfill a childhood promise to a long-lost friend.  There's only one slight problem with that plan: Keitaro is not particularly smart...or talented...or good at anything, really.  Despite two years of cram school, his test scores remain abysmal.  He's hoping that he can get more studying done at his grandmother's hotel, but gets the shock of his life when he discovers that not only had she turned into a girls' dormitory, but that she's made him landlord while she travels the world.  Now Keitaro is surrounded by a bevy of young girls who think of him as an idiot pervert, led by the feisty Naru Narusegawa.  Will Keitaro ever find a way to win the girls over?  Will he ever have a prayer at getting into Tokyo U?  Finally, will he ever figure out who was the girl he made his promise to so long ago?

STORY:

If you didn't get the jist from the comments above, I was not looking forward to reviewing this one.  I've never made my distaste for harem manga a secret, and few could be said to be as popular or as influential as Love Hina.  Indeed, many of the harem series we've gotten since owe at least a small creative debt to Ken Akamatsu's creation.  After reading this volume, though, I felt like I finally had an understanding of why harem series are like the way they are.  If this series is the model for every major modern harem manga, then it's no wonder that the genre has sunk to such lows.  How can they do anything but that when they follow in the path of such a supremely stupid, irritating story?

This story lost me on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin.  I guess I'll start with the tone of the story overall, which is at once broad to the point of slapstick and needlessly mean-spirited.  The story plays at being madcap and zany, but it spends so much time ridiculing Keitaro that its antics stops being funny and starts feeling cruel for cruelty's sake.  It's not helped that so many of the gags are either lame jokes based around sexist stereotypes or your standard 'boy falls into boobs' sort of gag, which always leads to more slapstick violence and wacky chases.  Worst of all, this story pounds those gags into the ground through sheer repetition, and it expects you to laugh all the same EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  Akamatsu clearly wants this story to be big, cartoonish, and fun, but he goes too far with everything and it instead comes off as loud, obnoxious, and wantonly mean towards its own cast.

Speaking of the cast, let's talk about them, starting with our leading man Keitaro.  He's meant to be a loveable loser, the kind of underdog you cheer for even as you laugh at their failings.  The only problem with that is that Akamatsu forgot the 'loveable' part of that phrase.  This story is determined to not let Keitaro retain the slightest shred of dignity, which is why all the slapstick targeted at him falls so flat.  It's not funny to kick a guy when he's down, only to follow it up by kicking him some more and then having him fall down a cliff like Wile E. Coyote.  What's really sad is that for all the abuse he gets from the girls and all the accidents he has, he heaps just as much abuse on himself.  He constantly complains to himself about how utterly friendless, dateless, and hopeless he is.  Of course, he never really does anything about it, so after a while it just comes off as whining, which only makes Keitaro all the more unappealing.  The only thing he manages to succeed at is winning over Shinobu and talking to Naru once or twice when her mood swings were at their mildest.  I honestly wonder if this series will ever let Keitaro do well or enjoy one thing without turning it into yet another joke to be made at his expense.

Mind you, the girls of the Hinata House aren't handled any better.  Only half of them get any sort of involvement in the story, and it figures that the one who gets the most is the worst of them all: Naru.  Tsunderes are nothing new to manga, and this was true even when Love Hina was new.  That being said, Naru takes the concept of the tsundere to bold, broad new heights of awfulness.  Like Keitaro, all her bad qualities are exaggerated for the sake of 'comedy.'  Naru's hair temper has become the stuff of anime legend, and it's still baffling how quickly she can shift from normal to irrational rage.  I suspect either the readers or the editors responded poorly to this in the early chapters, because her mood shifts dial down significantly in the second half of the volume.  I'm glad they made that change, but I do wish they could have brought that same sense of restraint to the oh-so subtle hints about Naru being the mystery girl from Keitaro's youth or made it a little less obvious that Keitaro and Naru are meant to be our end-game couple.  After all, a harem thrives on keeping the reader guessing who the lead will choose.  Any strong emphasis on one girl right away spoils that sense of uncertainty.

As for the rest of the girls, there isn't much to be said.  Kitsune is a manipulative trickster who likes to troll everyone in the house, including her so-called best friend Naru.  Shinobu is the youngest of the group and if she were any more of a wilting violet she would spend her story time shaking in a corner like a Chihuahua.  Still, Akamatsu was thinking ahead of his time with her, as her bland kindness, domestic skills, and emphasis on her youth and underdeveloped chest make her something of a trendsetter for what was then the emerging notion of 'moe.'  Motoko can give Naru a run for her money in the tsundere department, but her supernatural kendo skills ultimately make her feel like she got lost on her way to a shonen manga and got stuck here.  That's only half the cast, but I guess they're being saved for future volumes.  Meanwhile, they're just have to settle for filling in space when the girls go on a Keitaro hunt or talk and occasionally fondle one another in the hot springs.  What was really weird to me is that we're told that these girls are all good friends with one another, but they're revealed to be rather selfish little things acting for their own cause.  Sure, it's not uncharacteristic for teenage girls to be selfish, but it's in stark contrast to the happy harmonious group they paint themselves to have been before Keitaro showed up.

Love Hina wants to be a wild, wacky, saucy sort of manga, but somehow its forced zaniness only makes its flaws all the more obvious.  It's hard to laugh at or relate to a story about a ridiculous, exaggerated sadsack who is constantly pushed down by life and by half a dozen girls with cardboard-thin personalities as they repeat the same old gags over and over.

ART:

Akamatsu's writing may be full of flaws, but he's a lot more tolerable as an artist.  They certainly fit the sort of story he was aiming to create, as they're all generically cute and clean in design while still being broad and flappy enough to fit with all the slapstick.  That doesn't explain why they all have those weird little hair attennae, but that just seems to be a particular little quirk of his.  He's also surprisingly reserved when it comes to the fanservice.  No, it's not that he doesn't use it at all; after all, there isn't exactly a plot-relevant reason there HAS to be a hot spring at Hinata House.  It's more that the girls' proportions are fairly modest and what nudity is present is about as explicit as your average Barbie doll.

If there's one thing in this book that does have some real character, it's the setting itself.  Hinata House is huge, old-fashioned, and almost a bit eccentric in its design, and there's a certain charm to be found in its many winding halls, spacious rooms, and even the hot springs.  He also likes to make use of the background to let the rest of the girls react to events or to have them doing some physical gag, which gives the panels a sense of life and energy beyond what may be going on in the foreground.  It's a shame then that the panels are drawn so small, which is meant to make the big broad overreactions seem all the bigger, but it leaves so much less space for the qualities I did like.  I feel like the artwork is the only place where Akamatsu's intentions were actually fulfilled, as his art possesses the energy of a zany comedy while still being attractive and even a bit endearing.

PRESENTATION:

Unfortunately, I couldn't get my hands on the recent omnibus rerelease of this series, so I'm unable to compare and contrast the translation between it and the original Tokyopop release.  I do know that was retranslated, and that the original Tokyopop translation was mildly controversial to fans of the series.  Seriously, people use to fight over whether it should be Hinata House or Hinata Inn.  Still, as far as Tokyopop's brand of liberal translation goes, this series got off pretty mildly.

RATING:

I find it hard to believe that people could be genuinely nostalgic for this series as its faults are as plain as day.  It's a loud, obnoxious, and mean-spirited series populated by annoying characters and presented with all the style and cleverness of a pie to the face.  It's truly a shame that this manga, of all the harem series from that time, became the trendsetter because it set a truly awful example for the genre as a whole.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics, and formerly by Tokyopop.  The series is complete in 14 volumes.  The single volumes are out of print, but the 3-in-1 omnibuses are currently in print.

This series and many more like it are available at RightStuf.com!  Any purchases made through these links help support the Manga Test Drive!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Review: THE ALL-NEW TENCHI MUYO!

It's March, which means it's time for another round of harem manga, starting with - wait a minute, I thought I had already covered the Tenchi Muyo manga!  You mean they went and made ANOTHER one?!

THE ALL-NEW TENCHI MUYO! (Shin Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki), by Hitoshi Okuda.  First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
After the events of the first OVA, Tenchi Misaki is still surrounded by a gaggle of intergalactic girls who create all sorts of chaos around him when they're not fighting over who gets to date him.  This chaos can come in form of anything, be it Ryoko trying to hold down a job, Sasami becoming a baking sensation, or Ryo Ohki turning into a girl so that she can date Tenchi too.

STORY:
Much to my disbelief, I discovered that Okuda created two Tenchi manga, one shortly after the other.  I wasn't very kind to the first manga, and even after finally seeing the original OVA I still don't think it's a very good series.  It's still alienating to those who haven't seen it, and all the interesting stuff happens to Ryoko instead of anyone else, much less Tenchi.  As such, this second manga didn't necessarily have to do a lot to make a better impression.  All it had to do was to let the rest of the cast get involved with the story, not be alienating to Tenchi newcomers, and find a way to be at least mildly interesting without being redundant with the other various OVAs and series.  Amazingly, I think Okuda managed to do all that with this series, and he does all just be focusing on a bunch of wacky side stories.

First things first, he does a far better job getting the reader up to speed on the premise and cast.  Instead of a dull prologue, he instead gives Tenchi a random stalker who hires a PI to track him, and the PI in turn provides all the necessary exposition about Tenchi and the girls.  Once their purpose as plot devices are finished, the two are summarily ejected from the story and things continue as normal.  This might not be the most subtle, well-executed form of exposition, but it's far more engaging and fits the overall wacky tone of the book, so already Okuda has made progress from his
first attempt at a Tenchi manga.  It's not perfect progress, though, considering that the Ryo-Ohki chapter presumes you've seen the second OVA and thus will NOT be confused and freaked out that Ryo-Ohki can suddenly turn into a girl, so this manga still requires a little bit of homework to make perfect sense.

After this point, the manga is nothing but a bunch of episodic hijinks, and how much any given chapter will appeal to you will depend on which members of Tenchi's harem you like or dislike, as most of them get at least one chapter dedicated to them.  That probably explains why my favorite of the lot was Ryoko's chapter, where Ayeka's neverending guilt trips lead Ryoko to pursue a part-time job, and it ends just about as well as you would expect considering both her impulsiveness and her superhuman strength.  There's also a surprising amount of focus on Sasami, even if both of them are more about her relationships with her sister and Ryo-Ohki.   Ayeka's chapter is just another extension of her endless fights with Ryoko as she tries (and fails) to crash a date between Ryoko and Tenchi, and Mihoshi's is all about her being incredibly dumb and unlucky on the job - in other words, her usual tedious self.  The jokes you see here are the same jokes that this franchise has been hammering into the ground for the better part of two decades - Ryoko and Ayeka fighting over Tenchi, Washu coming up with wacky science-y things, Mihoshi being a ditz, and everything tending to end with some part of Tenchi's house getting blown up.  These weren't terribly original jokes to begin with, and odds are good that the more familiar you are with the franchise, the more likely you are to be utterly sick and tired of said jokes. 

Believe it or not, this manga is an improvement on the previous Tenchi manga.  It's less tedious, better balanced, and the general air of wackiness helps it fit more comfortably with the rest of the franchise.  That doesn't necessarily mean it's a great manga, though.  Much of its humor is focused on the same old lame jokes, and despite its best efforts it doesn't really do much to expand upon the girls' personalities.  It might be more friendly towards newcomers to the franchise, but I don't see anyone other than devoted Tenchi fans getting anything beyond mild interest out of this manga.

ART:
Sadly, while Okuda's storytelling has improved somewhat from his previous manga, the artwork managed to get WORSE.  In the previous manga, the characters all looked more or less as they did in the original OVA.  Here they've been distilled into strange, oversimplified forms and the cast as a whole suffers for it.  Noses are only present in profile, mouths are flappy, and everyone has those strange, angular cheekbones that were all the rage in the mid- to late-90s, which gives their heads a strange, squarish look.  He also apparently couldn't get these weird faces to squash or stretch in reaction to things, so there are a lot of superdeformed reaction shots used as response to the wackiness around them.  The only thing Okuda seems to be able to draw well is action.  There aren't a lot of fights, but when they happen the panels open up to contain all the powerful bursts of energy, and Okuda imbues every punch and crash with power and energy.  I just wish he could have infused the rest of the story with that same energy and that he had gone for a more timeless art style to go with it.

RATING:
Despite what the title might say, this manga isn't really all that 'all-new.'  It's got some nice character moments and it's more welcoming to new-comers, but it just recycles a lot of the same old jokes about the cast and in the end it's still more for fans of the franchise than anyone else.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan.  All 10 volumes were published and all are out of print. 

You can find manga like this and much more at RightStuf.com!  Any purchases made through this link help support the site!


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: HAPPY MANIA

So by now you've probably noticed that most of the books I've looked at this month weren't very good (to say the least).  Is there any way to portray a bad romance in a good way?  It turns out that yes, there is a way to do just that.

HAPPY MANIA (Happi Mania), by Moyoco Anno.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
Shigeta wants a boyfriend more than anything.  Sure, she's 24, living in a shared apartment, barely getting by at her dead-end bookstore job, and stuck working alongside a dweeby guy who won't leave her alone, but Shigeru is convinced that if she could find the perfect man then everything in her life would fall into place.  It's too bad then that she keeps picking up feckless losers in her quest for the perfect man, guys who are more interested in a quick screw than any sort of real relationship.  Still, for Shigeru hope (and self-delusion) runs eternal.

STORY:
It took me more than a few tries for me to figure out how to articulate why this series works so well and why I find it so amusing.  I was finally able to slim it down to two reasons: Happy Mania works in part because Shigeru is a gloriously well-written, complex character, and because the series is able to bring out the humor of her situation without descending into mean-spirited mockery. 

It's often said that the strongest female characters aren't those who are simply written to be strong, virtuous paragons, but those who are written simply as people, with all the foibles and faults that any given person might possess.   If that's true, then it certainly explains how Shigeta can remain so relatable to the reader despite showing herself time and again to be a flighty, immature mess of a young woman.  Anno makes no effort to hide Shigeta's many faults: her deep-rooted insecurities, her laziness, her arrogance, her immaturity, the way she uses sex to kickstart new relationships and fix broken ones, and her sour-grapes spite towards anyone who seems to have their lives or relationships.  Yet Anno doesn't judge Shigeta harshly for her actions to try to shame into good behavior.  Oh, a few characters in-story might try to tut-tut Shigeta for the things she's done, but Shigeru tends to blow them off and continue on her own path.  Her actions may be frustrating, but how many of us honestly can say that we didn't possess some of the same qualities when we were 24? How many of us experienced the same sorts of manic highs and insecure, paranoid lows during relationships as Shigeta?  How many of us were convinced that we could turn a flawed lover into a perfect mate or how we could escape dead-end jobs through high-minded dreams of success?  Shigeru might be a misguided, silly young woman, but no more than any of us were at her age, and her adventures are in many ways just comically exaggerated versions of the same troubles we went through at her age.

Of course, this isn't just a one-woman show.  Shigeta does have some good influences in her life (even if she tends to mostly ignore them).  There's her roommate Fuku, whose deadpan snark and blunt, common sense advice stands in firm contrast to Shigeta's manic mood swings.  There are her well-meaning parents.  There's also Takahashi, her dweeby coworker who tries to support her in spite of his massive and blatant crush on her.  He too is all too relatable, someone who is kind and well-adjusted but finds themselves drawn to a hot mess in the hopes of making them better.  You'd think that Anno was trying to set him up as Shigeta's ultimate Mr. Right, but that notion is rejected time and again in-story by Shigeta.  She refuses to settle for anything but the hottest guy she can find, even if those hot guys turn out to be douches looking only for an easy lay.  Still, the weird relationship between those two is one of the few constant plot threads to be found as Shigeta bounces her way from bed to bed, job to job, and from one hysterical dilemma to the next.  Everything that happens here is pretty well grounded in reality, but Anno gives it all a wacky air just by having the reader experience it through Shigeta's wild emotional filter.  We experience her world mostly through her inner monologue, and thus her highs and lows become the reader's highs and lows.  In doing so she has made the mundane ridiculous, and managed to do so without necessarily tearing down Shigeta as a person in the process.  As ridiculous as things can get in Happy Mania, Anno clearly loves Shigeta as a character, and invites the reader to do much the same.

ART:
As I've stated before, Moyoco Anno's artwork is something of a love-it-or-hate-it style.  Either you will accept her alien-looking women with their crude lines, flowing hair, big lips, and frank eyes, or you will reject as too far removed from cuteness to be accepted.  Still, she manages to communicate so much about Shigeta just through subtle facial tics or body language, and she can balance this same subtlety with the sort of comic overreaction that Shigeta is so prone to.  Being a josei work, there's a fair amount of sex and nudity on display, but Anno's approach to both is down to earth.  She's not here to titillate the viewer with the promise of smut, but simply to portray what goes on in a sexually active relationship.  Anno's work isn't for everyone, but it's definitely one of a kind, and it's plain, frank approach to things fits the story well.

RATING:
This was Moyoco Anno's first series, and it's clear that she hit the ground running with Happy Mania.  The story is driven by a leading woman who always manages to be fascinatingly flawed, utterly ridiculous, and yet always sympathetic, drawn in a style that is both alien yet beautiful.  In many ways I relate more to Shigeta than I ever would to the Bridget Joneses or Carries of the world, and I'm glad a perspective like hers was put into comic form for the world to enjoy.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  This series is complete in Japan in 11 volumes.  All 11 volumes were published, and are currently out of print.

This volume and many more like it are available through RightStuf.com!  Any purchases made through these links help support the site!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: JUNJO ROMANTICA

Of course, just because we're talking about bad romances doesn't mean that they all have to be bad STRAIGHT romances.  Yaoi has plenty of unfortunate examples, but how many can be said to feature multiple examples within a single story line or to be as well-known as today's subject?

JUNJO ROMANTICA: PURE-HEARTED ROMANCE (Junjo Romanchika), by Shungiku Nakamura.  First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2006.



PLOT:
Misaki is determined to get into university, but his grades stink.  His older brother/guardian knows someone who can help, though - Usami Akihiko, a renowned novelist and old friend.  Misaki soon discovers that Usami writes more than literary fiction.  He also apparently writes BL novels featuring himself and Misaki's brother by name.  When Misaki confronts Usami about the matter, Usami responds by forcing himself upon the boy.  Misaki is freaked out by Usami's actions and his own confusion on the matter, but he finds himself moved when he learns just how deep Usami's feelings for his brother go.

At that same university, Hiroki Kamijo is a frustrated college student.  He's in love with Usami, but knows full well that his feelings are unrequired, no matter how many blindfold-assisted trysts they have.  While brooding, he meets up with  Nowaki Kosama, a mellow young man who is working himself through multiple part-time jobs to get himself through college.  He ends up falling for Hiroki at first sight, but Hiroki remains in denial, despite the fact that he takes a greater than normal interest in Nowaki's welfare.

STORY:
I've lamented many times before about how yaoi's low standards for entry tends to result in a lot of works that are dull and sometimes outright awful, but few of them can compare to Junjo Romantica in length, popularity, and sheer awfulness.  I'm convinced at this point that the title is meant to be ironic because everything about the cast and the writing is anything BUT pure-hearted.  Instead it's a giant interwoven mess of oddness, abusiveness, and hackeneyed writing.

Junjo Romantica is built not around one love story, but three of them (although the third is not featured in this first volume).  Most of the volume is focused on the Romantica plotline with Misaki and Usami, and they are by and large the worst couple of the lot.  These two are nothing but every lazy seme and uke cliché you've ever seen cranked to 11, and the result is both eye-rollingly predictable and skin-crawlingly awful.  Misaki is painfully naïve, rude, homophobic and overreactive even before Usami assaults him.  He's also massively in denial, refusing Usami's physical contact or the suggestion that he might be gay despite having living with Usami, taking care of him, and sleeping with him on a regular basis.  Of course, I can't blame him for being angry or in denial on the matter, because lord knows I would do the same to deny any connection to a manipulative, flakey creep like Usami.  He lost me the moment that he decided the best response to accusations of being an indiscriminate rapist was to RAPE HIS ACCUSER.  He then follows this up by essentially entrapping Misaki by isolating him from his peers, make the kid take care of him, molest him on a regular basis in spite of his frequent, noisy protests, and guilt him into staying with him by paying for Misaki's schooling and playing up his oh-so-tragic past.

Nakamura wants the reader to be SO SAD about poor Usami, and her attempts at redeeming him are laughably amateurish.  She has Misaki literally explain Usami's backstory to him for the sake of the audience, and she harps constantly about how Usami never had a proper childhood or just how much Usami loves Misaki's brother, despite knowing his feelings will never be requited.  This might be terribly tragic if not for the fact that the former is there just so she can justify Usami's inability to take care of himself and his creepy toy collection and the latter is resolved in such a shallow, sudden manner that any impact it might have had is instantly lost, and the story forgets about it almost immediately.  Nakamura will simply have to forgive me if I don't start breaking out the violins for Usami because his actions are not those of a man desperately in love.  They are the actions of an obsessive, abusive asshole, and only the most deluded fujoshi could view it as anything otherwise.

Hiroki and Nowaki's storyline, Junjo Egotist, is generally regarded as the "best" of the three storylines, the one that comes off as the least creepy and exploitative of the lot.  While I'll concede that it is less awful and rapey than the previous one, it's still pretty damn far from endearing.  Hiroki is the most overreactive tsundere that ever tsuned, while Nowaki is so innocent and his backstory so mawkish that it feels like he was dragged out of some obscure Horatio Alger novel.  He's literally a poor orphan who has had to support himself his whole life, one who is too determined and proud to take assistance but instead will slave his way through both work and school to get by.  It makes even less sense that he would be so taken with Hiroki, a selfish, paranoid asshole who does nothing but moon over Usami and yell at Nowaki for being an idiot.  Of course, he's hardly a saint himself, backstory be damned.  Nowaki's idea of an introduction is to literally sneak into Hiroki's apartment to care for him, and his idea of flirtation is to passive-aggressively insert himself into Hiroki's life until Hiroki is forced to confess his feelings.  It's a more subtle form of manipulation, and that combined with Hiroki's dickishness turned me off to this couple as well.  Maybe it's for the best that I didn't find out what the third storyline is like.  If these two are any indication, it couldn't possibly be good.

There are a lot of things to hate about both of these storylines, but the worst quality that they both share is the fact that neither relationship ever makes any sort of progress.  No matter how many times someone might confess their feelings, makes a move, or even has sex, in the next chapter everything comes back to the reluctant parties freaking out about how they're TOTALLY NOT GAY, guaranteeing that everything remains at an awful status quo.  It's a strategy that works for Nakamura, as she's used this to stretch out this wretched collection of romance over multiple volumes, but it also means that as awful as this story is, it's guaranteed to never get any better.

ART:
As awful as Nakamura's writing may be, her artwork is even worse.  It's so bad that it is literally a joke.  Well, more accurately, it is literally a meme.  Some of you out there may be familiar with the "Yaoi Hands" meme, where people post examples of the most egregiously exaggerated and off-model examples of yaoi art.  What series spawned that meme?  Why, none other than Junjo Romantica itself, and from the beginning it's not hard to see how it happened.

Every page is a fresh new disaster to behold.  The characters are flat and angular, made up of haystack hairstyles, hatch lines, and bizarrely enormous eyes on gaunt, contortionist bodies.  Proportions are all over the place, so at any point any character may have giant spidery hands, giant feet, stilt-like legs, or orangutan arms and it can literally change from panel to panel.  I'm honestly glad that what few sex scenes can be found in this volume are mostly obscured with dark screentones, because I shudder to think what those would look like unaltered.  She can't even manage to draw limbs that look human, so what kind of abstract horror would she try to pass off as a penis?

Her page composition is just as bad as the character art.  Panels are put together almost at random, and only dialogue indicates which panels follow one another.  Screentones are used and abused with abandon, and what few unobscured backgrounds we do get are as crudely rendered as everything else.  Even the few bits of color artwork can't improve on things.  This series is just a constant eyesore from cover to cover, and I'm appalled that something so visually lacking could seriously get published.

RATING:
Junjo Romantica is a popular series.  It covers multiple volumes of manga, light novels, and audio dramas.  It has spawned two seasons of anime, with a third on the way.  It was the first yaoi series to top the New York Times manga bestsellers list.  It's achieved a level of success that few yaoi manga can ever hope to reach.  It's also THE worst yaoi manga I've ever read.  Its notions of romance are unnervingly creepy when they're not amateurishly melodramatic, and the artwork is like something spawned from the worst depths of DeviantArt.  This isn't pure-hearted romance, this is purely awful garbage.

This series was published by Tokyopop, under their Blu imprint.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 18 volumes currently available.  12 volumes were published, and all are out of print.

Manga like this and much more can be found at RightStuf.com!  Any purchase made through this link help support the Manga Test Drive!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: AI ORE!

I can't cover bad romance in shoujo without bringing up a work from one of its masters: Mayu Shinjo.  Her works are notorious for being full of innocent ingénues who find themselves under the spell of leering, manipulative douchebags looking to get laid but who ultimately fall for the good girl's good graces.  Today's review covers a series that on the surface appears to be defying that formula, but in the end Shinjo can't help but succumb to her worst instincts.

AI ORE! (Ai o Utau yori Ore ni Oberero!), by Mayu Shinjo.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2011.



PLOT:
Mizuki is the lead guitarist of the hottest new boy band, Blauen Rosen.  Mizuki is cool, good-looking, surrounded by adoring fans.  Mizuki is also a girl, as are the other members of Blauen Rosen.  Their lead singer is moving overseas, though, and the future of the band is up in the air...at least, until Akira comes along.  Akira is short and feminine-looking, but he's also one of Mizuki's biggest fans.  He's so determined to get close to her that he'll both try out for the band and infiltrate Mizuki's all-girl school to make her face what he believes to be the truth: that he loves her, that she loves in in return, and that her band needs him to survive.

STORY:
I really wanted to hope that Mayu Shinjo was changing her ways with this series.  Her male leads have a reputation for being rather rapey aggressive and her heroines have a reputation for being doormats naïve, and I hoped that the gender-bending angle might allow her to get away from that.  I was almost at the point where I could have embraced this as a guilty pleasure, but then she took the story to a place too dark for me to follow willingly.

While Mizuki and Akira appear to be reversals on Shinjo's usual brand of leads, their true personalities are anything but that.  Mizuki might play at being cool and alluring, but in truth she's just a tomboyish innocent who constantly (and often literally) runs away from her feelings.  Akira is considered the 'princess' of his own all-male school, but his delicate looks bely the fact that he's a manipulative little brat who exploits his girly looks to get out of trouble.  He's also surprisingly forceful and focused to the point of obsession, and he's constantly badgering Mizuki with his feelings in the hopes that he'll eventually wear her down.  The reader is meant to be amused by this comic reversal, but really it's nothing more than the usual, exploitative dynamic dressed up in drag.  Akira is the one who holds all the power in the relationship, the one who constantly threatens to expose Mizuki for whom she truly is, and the one who is constantly crafting new, more extreme scenarios to get close to her, and this extreme power imbalance always makes their romance feel exploitative instead of alluring.

Still, the series makes the most of the cross-dressing angle, even if it's never explained exactly why Blauen Rosen have to perform as men.  Cross-dressing here isn't done as an expression of one's sexuality, but instead for utilitarian purposes.  For Mizuki, it's a defense mechanism that allows her to protect both her private life and her delicate heart.  For Akira, it's an offensive tool he uses to play upon the expectations of others to whatever degree he wishes and always for his own gain.  It also doesn't play up the secret of their true gender for the sake of drama.  They could have dragged out their mutual discovery for chapters on end, turning it into a hurtle blocking the progress of their romance, but their secrets are revealed to one another fairly quickly and it turn it becomes a something that they can share only with one another.  It might be sweet if not for the turn the story takes near the end of the volume.

(WARNING: The following paragraph contains spoilers and references to rape.)

So you're probably wondering by this point why I have such an issue with Akira or why I keep alluding to the ending.  Well, remember how I said that Akira likes to manipulate others to get his way?  Well, he find outs that Mizuki is going off on a class trip and decides to follow her.  While there he overhears a plot by some of Mizuki's classmates to incapacitate her and rape her.  He in turn saves her by convincing another group of kids to rape the conspirators in turn, with Mizuki completely oblivious to any of these actions.  First of all, it's bad enough that Shinjo was already reaching for the rape card, a plot device that's not only tired as hell but incredibly insensitive to boot.  Then she had to compound it by making the love interest complicit in plotting one himself, and while the act is not shown it's implied that Akira's efforts were successful.  The notion of using rape to stop a rape is so monstrous and counterintuitive that it makes my head spin, and the fact that Shinjo is trying to paint that as a noble, even romantic gesture is sickening.  I don't care if he spent the rest of the series acting like a perfect saint, because at that point Akira is beyond forgiveness.  At that moment the book went from 'guilty pleasure' to 'OH GOD GET IT AWAY FROM ME."

It's kind of distressing for me that Mayu Shinjo remains one of the best known and best-selling shoujo mangaka of recent years because while the surface details may change, Ai Ore! isn't any different from her other series at heart.  It's still based around exploitative forms of romance and it's still fueled by tired, exploitive clichés.

ART:
While Shinjo's storytelling is extremely troublesome, her art remains pleasant but unremarkable.  Her character designs are androgynous enough to make Mizuki and Akira's cross-dressing plausible, but she's clearly more in love with dressing them up like they were caught in a Hot Topic explosion that she is with the idea of drawing interesting faces or hair that doesn't look like a tangled mop.  Her panels are large and angular, and she fills them in only with the barest trace of screentone.  Otherwise, there really isn't much to say for her art.  It's not bad looking, it's not hard to follow, but it also doesn't really stick in the mind either.

RATING:
As much as Shinjo tries, Ai Ore! can't escape her trashy tendencies.  All she's done to change things here is to dress her leads in drag, hoping that will be enough to distract the readers from the fact that the male lead is an awful person and that her artwork remains stubbornly average.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in 8 volumes, and all are currently in print and available in e-book form through Viz.com.

This volume and many more like are available through RightStuf.com!  A portion of any purchase made through these links helps support The Manga Test Drive!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: BOYS OVER FLOWERS

With February upon us and Valentine's Day less than two weeks away, the notion of love is just about everywhere you look.  In the past I've looked at harems or reverse harems this time of year, but this year I want to do so something a little different.  I want to look at the nonconventional sorts of romance one can find in manga, the sorts that could be described as "odd," "dysfunctional," "creepy," and sometimes even worse.  Think of this month as a celebration of bad romance, no matter whether it's bad on purpose or by accident.

So let's kick this month off in style with one of the classics, the sort of story where boys meet girl, girls stands up to bullying boys, boys bully her in turn, only to start falling for her.  Only in manga would this be considering the set up for a reverse harem.

BOYS OVER FLOWERS (Hana Yori Dango ), by Yoko Kamio.  First published in 1992, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
Tsukushi Makino is the lone middle-class student at the ultra-elite and ultra-rich Eitoku Academy, having been pushed into attending due to her parents' desire to show off to others.  She can't begin to relate to the mindset, activities, or allowances of her classmates, so she mostly keeps her head down and does her best to suppress her frustration at the inequality around her as well as the activities of the F4 gang.  They're a four-man group of the richest, most spoiled boys at the school, and their opinions shape who is and is not socially accepted at Eitoku.  Tsukushi ends up catching their ire when she stands up for a friend, and the boys in turn declare social war upon her...at least, until their leader starts to fall for Tsukushi.

STORY:
Man, if you want to experience a tonal shift that will leave you stunned, go read Boys Over Flowers.  I'll give Kamio major credit for crafting a story around a truly strong heroine, but the sudden shift from antagonistic to almost comical left me feeling both angry and confused.

I complain a lot about the lack of strong, self-determined heroines in shoujo, but this manga is a merciful exception to that.  Tsukushi has a strong will and a keen sense of justice, and her seething frustration at the obliviousness and lack of empathy around her is more than understandable to the reader.  She has her occasional moments of self-doubt, but she has more than enough inner strength and empathy to stand up for the people she cares about and gives the bullies of F4 what they deserve, whether it's an angry lecture or (best of all) AN EPIC KICK TO THE FACE.  It's so nice to see a shoujo story centered around a girl who truly can handle herself in most situations.

I have to say "most situations" because more or less from the outset, the F4 boys don't play fair.  They set the usual sort of Mean Girls at her to cause Tsukushi all sort of humiliation, but the boys themselves prove to be downright sadistic in their actions.  They actually bribe another group of boys so that they'll try to rape her.  THIS IS A THING THAT SERIOUSLY HAPPENS IN THIS BOOK.  Even by the standards of Shoujo Melodrama, that is crossing a serious line.  We soon learn that this idea comes straight from the gang's leader, Tsukasa Doumyouji, and it's with him there the tonal whiplash starts.  You see, Kamio tries to counter his sadism by trying to make him a comic foil as well by having him misuse big words in an attempt to sound smart.  Then he convinces himself that's Tsukushi's resistance to him means that she must be in love with him (that, and that she reminds him of his older sister, which speaks to a bit of a complex on his part). 

I find myself deeply conflicted about the notion of redeeming the F4 boys, Tsukasa in particular.  On one hand, his misguided crush does lead to the rest of the boys gaining a begrudging respect for her, and they start to behave more friendly towards Tsukushi, which does help steer the story away from the very bad and melodramatic places it was going.  On the other hand, their actions were so extreme that it's going to take more than just a few gestures of reconciliation to make things right, and I don't blame Tsukushi for being rather confused by their actions.  I especially don't like the idea of building up any of them as potential love interests, much less the delusional Tsukasa, at least not without a lot of effort made towards forcing him to grow up and own up to his actions.

Boys Over Flowers is an interesting series to read, to say the least.  It's got a great, sympathetic heroine whose strong personality and willing to take action allow her to survive the melodramatic twists and turns of the plot.  On the other hand, the tone takes a hard turn halfway through towards something more lighthearted, and that shift is in equal parts welcome and uncomfortable.  It's hard to say what direction Boys Over Flowers is going to take, but it's certainly not going to be a boring one.

ART:
Boys Over Flowers is very clearly a product of its time, and I suspect that will leave younger readers chuckling.  The character designs are pleasant enough, but their style is firmly rooted in the early 1990s, which means that it's nothing but bad, warmed-over 80s fashion as far as the eye can see.  It's especially bad with the F4 gang, who look like rejects from Color Me Badd right down to Tsukasa's weird mop of what are either tight curls or short dreadlocks.  Otherwise Kamio's art is fairly plain, which is unusual for a shoujo manga of this age.  There aren't a lot of backgrounds nor a lot of screentones and effects save for the occasional flourish of flowers.  It's a classy, almost restrained touch that helps to counteract the tackiness of the then-contemporaneous fashion, which in turn makes the artwork here a little more timeless than it would be otherwise.

RATING:
While I can't say that I'm completely crazy for Boys Over Flowers, I can respect its willingness to give its heroine a backbone, its relative sense of artistic restraint, and its overall unpredictability.  I can see why this title would still be remembered by others, even two decades after its initial release.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in 37 volumes, and all are out of print.

You can pick up manga like this and much more through RightStuf.com!  Any purchases made through these links helps support the Manga Test Drive!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: CHOBITS

Of course, no CLAMP month these days can go by without featuring one of the many classics Dark Horse Comics picked up in the stead of Tokyopop, and today's review is no exception to that.

CHOBITS (Chobittsu), by CLAMP.  First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2002.



PLOT:
Persocoms are the latest technological craze.  They are walking computers shaped like beautiful people (mostly women), and it seems that everyone in Tokyo has one...well, everyone but Hideki Motosuwa.  He's a poor cram school student from the countryside who barely makes ends meet as is, but he dreams of getting a Persocom for practical purposes ('practical purposes' meaning 'Internet porn').  Hideki's luck seemingly turns for the best when he finds a Persocom put out amongst the evening trash, but his lucky find is not all that she seems.  His new Persocom is seemingly unable to perform the slightest task on her own and is unable to say anything but "Chii."  Hideki now has to focus on teaching Chii about the world all while he works on finding out her origins, which may be tied to an urban legend about the Chobits, Persocoms that are capable of genuine emotion and thought.

STORY:
So what happens when everyone's favorite all-woman manga team tries to tackle the male-oriented world of magical girlfriend manga?  Well, like so many of their previous works, they flip some of the old clichés on their head, insert a bit of humor, and build their story around a unconventional love story.  Mind you, all of this isn't obvious from the outset.  After all, Chobits stars a spastic, horny young guy who is down on his luck who happens to be surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful women, whose actions in turn only make him more awkward.  How is this any different from the others?

First and foremost, it flips the idea of the perfect magical girlfriend on its head.  Hideki thinks that by getting a Persocom he could solve all his troubles.  He could have the status symbol item of the moment, have a sentient sex doll to stand in for the perfect girlfriend, and he could at long last stop perceiving himself as a failure compared to his peers.  Of course, Chii is anything but the perfect girlfriend, there to service all of Hideki's needs.  If anything, Hideki has to service her needs because she is essentially like a child.  She has to be taught to do just about everything - to speak, to dress herself, and how to function in the wider world.  Like a child, she readily imitates anything that Hideki does.  This becomes what is easily the funniest running gag in the volume, as Chii is often imitating Hideki's every moment to perfection as he freaks out over whatever issue has come his way.  Still, Chii and Hideki's oddly parental relationship makes for an interesting bit of role reversal in a genre that tends to stay firmly entrenched in traditional gender roles, even if it makes Hideki's growing affection for her more than a little weird.  Sure, he's aware that it's weird because he's human and she's a computer, a fact which gets drilled into his head more than once, but it becomes rapidly apparent that their relationship occupies a weird place between parent/child and innocent romance.

That same sense of subversion can be found in the rest of the female cast.  At first it seems that Hideki has his choice of women in tradionally fetish roles - sexy landlord, sexy teacher, and sexy coworker.  In any other story, all of these women would pose some degree of romantic interest in our leading man.  Here, though, that applies only to one out of those three women.  Chibiya (the landlord) is more of a motherly figure to both Hideki and Chii.  Shizuma-sensei (the teacher) does end up drunk and half-clothed at Hideki's place due to circumstance, but even then neither of them makes any sort of move.  Only Yuna (the coworker) has any actual romantic interest in Hideki, and even there she's shown to be less than keen on the concept of Persocoms.  While none of these characters get a lot of screentime or deep development in the first volume, they are shown to have lives and thoughts outside of Hideki, a fact that makes them more interesting than their equivalents in similar manga.

Chobits has a lot going on for it story-wise.  It's got a great sense of humor, which can't be said for most magical girlfriend manga.  On the other hand, much more effort is put towards the jokes than "boy falls into boobs" or "boy gets nosebleed from girl being sexy."  A lot of it stems more from Chii's innocent misunderstandings of everyday life and having no conversational filter.  It also tends to follow a lot of the usual story beats for such romances (boy meets girl, brings her home, buys her clothes, etc.), but by flipping a lot of the typical character roles and dynamics on their head CLAMP has breathed some life into this dull genre.

ART:
While the character designs here couldn't be mistaken for anything but CLAMP characters, they bear a stronger resemblance to the simpler forms of Angelic Layer or Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles than their previous shoujo works.  Another notable difference here is that this is one of the few CLAMP works with male-oriented fanservice.  They've never been short on manservice, what with all the pretty bishies who sometimes touch and pose in homoerotic ways, but Chii ends up flashing more than her fair share of cleavage and suggestive poses.  This can even be found in the otherwise lovely and delicate splash art, where Chii is the sole focus.  Of course, in context this suggestiveness is more than a bit awkward, considering her child-like nature.

The page composition here is rather restrained, which is surprising considering how often Hideki likes to fill his panels full of gasps, tears, and flailing.  While CLAMP does take advantage of the background for some additional jokes, they don't draw a lot of backgrounds and add a lot of screentone.  That restraint can even be found in those previously mentioned pieces of color artwork.  The color palatte there tends to be restrained to a lot of delicate pastels and flowery, natural settings.  It's an interestingly shoujo-esque affectation for what is meant to be a seinen work, but I suspect that that same flail helps to explain why this series appeals just as much to CLAMP's traditionally female audience as it does to the guys who normally read magical girlfriend manga.

RATING:
Chobits succeeds where so many magical girlfriend series fail because it's willing to subvert a lot of the usual tropes to create a narrative that embraces some of the weirdness within.  It also finds a way to combine seinen cheesecake with shoujo prettiness to create artwork that appeals to a wider audience.  Even those who are normally wary of such premises should give this series a chance.

This series was previous published by Tokyopop and is currently published by Dark Horse.  This series is complete in 5 volumes.  The single volumes from Tokyopop are out of print, but the 2 omnibus releases from Dark Horse are currently in print.

This volume and many more like it can be purchased through RightStuf.com!  If you buy through this link, part of the purchase go towards supporting The Manga Test Drive!


Monday, January 12, 2015

ONE VOLUME WONDER: The One I Love

Let's take a quick break to take a look at a tiny little CLAMP one-shot put out by Tokyopop back in the day when they would literally publish anything with CLAMP's name on it.

THE ONE I LOVE (Watashi na Sukinahito), by CLAMP.  First published in 1995, and first published in North America in 2004.



PLOT:
This anthology peeks into the lives of twelve young people united by a single concept: love.  Some are trying to gain it by winning the hearts of others and some may be trying to maintain it in their relationships, but all are connected by the various ways they experience love.

STORY:
This is CLAMP at their briefest and utmost fluffiest.  Depending on your mood and tolerance for fluffy shoujo cuteness, it can be entertaining, but all that brevity and fluff comes at the expense of depth and drama.

These are very brief vignettes, with none of them numbering over 10 pages in length.  As such, you only get the briefest sketch as to who our lead characters are.  Many are so brief that their leads don't even get the benefit of a name.  The conflicts within are also appropriately brief and simple, with most being variations on "Oh God, does he like me? Oh goodness, he DOES love me!" or "Oh no, he doesn't love me anymore!  Oh, my mistake, he actually does still love me!"  The stories are structured in a way that resembles the progression of a relationship, starting with stories about first love and building up all the way to a story about a bride with a case of pre-ceremony cold feet.  True to form, CLAMP did include a same-sex couple amongst these stories, and to their credit their story is treated no differently than the hetero ones.

All that being said, the collection is ultimately hurt to some degree by being so short and sweet.  In many ways, this anthology is like the manga version of cotton candy.  All that fluffy sweetness can be fun in the short term, but the pleasure is fleeting and there's little to no substance behind it.  This collection feels like CLAMP just took a bunch of half-baked outlines for scenes and draped the barest minimum of storyline upon them.  They didn't bother with character or drama, they simply threw out what they had so they could fill up a few pages, make a few yen, and then move on with the rest of their day.  The One I Love may be a pleasant read, but without anything serious to anchor it down it simply passes out of one's mind the moment the reader puts down the book.

ART:
The artwork here is just as cutesy as the story.  It's very much in the same vein as manga like CLAMP School Detectives, with lots of delicate linework and loads of chibis.  Backgrounds are rather minimal, with just a hint of floating petals or light washes of color or pattern to frame the characters.  Despite the small size of the book, the panels are large and spacious, which supports the overall lightness and airiness of the artwork.  The art may not be all that much more substantial than the story, but it's beautifully drawn and matches the sugar-sweet tone to a T.

PRESENTATION:
Despite being such a small, slender work, Tokyopop put some effort into making it look good.  The first few pages, along with the first chapter, are rendered in full color watercolors on heavy, textured paper.  There are notes from the members of CLAMP after each chapter, along with the chibi-heavy omakes that they made so frequently back in the day.

RATING:
While The One I Love is a sweet little confection with lovely artwork, all but the most dedicated CLAMP fans will consider this more of a curiosity than anything else.  It's enjoyable to consume, but lacks the substance needed to stick in one's memory.

This volume was published by Tokyopop, and is currently out of print. 

This volume and many more like it can be purchased through RightStuf.com!