Tuesday, August 26, 2014


We'll end this year's Old School Month with another well-loved shoujo series from the 1990s.  Does it hold up as well as Basara?

MARMALADE BOY (Mamaredo Boi), by Wataru Yoshizumi.  First published in 1992, and first published in North America in 2002.

Miki gets the shock of her life when her parents announce their imminent divorce over tea.  Her shock only increases from there.  Her parents essentially had a midlife crisis during a trip to Hawaii, and instead of buying expensive cars or plastic surgery, they fell for another married couple and have decided to switch partners.  To add to the discomfort, they all decided to live together in one big polyamorous household.  On top of all that, the second couple have a boy who is Miki's age, so she has a new stepbrother to contend with.  Her new brother, Yuu, is a moody kid who alternates between teasing Miki and bonding with her, and her feelings for her newfound stepsibling become very confused.  This is only aggravated by the relationship drama she encounters as school, be it from her old junior high crush or from Yuu's ex-girlfriend. 

Man, sometimes people don't understand just how weird shoujo can be.  A lot of people stereotype it as being nothing more than a bunch of stammering schoolkids who can never quite work out how to say something as simple as "I love you and want to go out with you."  While this series doesn't even begin to plumb the weirdest depth of the genre, the summary above should give you some idea of the kinkier interesting places the story goes.

I honestly felt kind of sorry for Miki.  It's not because she's a terribly endearing character, because truthfully she's more tightly wound than a Swiss watch and spends most of her time freaking out at others.  It's more like I felt bad for her situation.  Divorce is a hard enough thing to deal with, but the arrangement to have all her parents and step-parents live together is a pretty selfish move.  They don't tell their children until the deed is done and simply expect everyone to get along, as if moving in with both your current and former spouse is a perfectly normal event.  Hell, if anything her parents expect her to get along REALLY well with Yuu, as she is warned early on to not fall in love with Yuu because it might make things weird and complicated.

Yes, because of course things wouldn't get REALLY weird unless Miki started getting the hots for her stepbrother.  Normal people do not have to have conversations like this!  Sadly, their warning is all too apt, because Miki does start crushing on Yuu, and their weird relationship becomes the catalyst for the rest of the plot.  After that point, rivals to Miki and Yuu's affections start to enter the picture to stir up a little drama before moving on.  All of this might be more interesting if Miki and Yuu were more compelling characters in their own right.  As I mentioned before, Miki is mostly defined by being high-strung.  She's not so much an active character as she is a reactive character, there to yell at whatever new complication has come her way.  Yuu is a far harder character to read, as he is both frustratingly inexpressive and constantly giving off mixed signals.  It's those same signals that give this series its name, as Miki likens him to the bittersweetness of marmalade.  The rest of the cast is just OK.  The closest any of them get to interesting is with Arimi, Yuu's ex.  She acts nice to Miki even as she competes with her for Yuu, but unlike a lot of stereotypical shoujo villains her kindness is sincere in its intent. 

Marmalade Boy has a surprisingly kinky premise for a story that ran in a girls' magazine, but beyond that the characters and execution are plain and predictable. 

Yoshizumi's art is almost a depressing stereotype of 1990s shoujo art.  Her characters are plain and flat, with lots of stiff expressions and equally stiff little matchstick bodies.  The only parts of them that seem to get any sort of effort expended on them are the hairstyles.  Even the backgrounds are decidedly plain, with a lot of blank space or dull screentones substituting for real settings.  It's all very minimalist in a way that doesn't come from specific effort so much as apathy and homogenization.  It's the kind of milquetoast art that shoujo  magazines of the day ate up, and it's an artstyle that's best left to the past.

Aside from the weirdly kinky premise, there's nothing in Marmalade Boy's storytelling or art that hasn't been done far better in shoujo series both old and new.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  The series is complete with 8 volumes total.  All 8 volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through RightStuf.com!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: BASARA

We're back to a proper series this week, with a severely underrated gem of a fantasy series from Viz.

BASARA, by Yumi Tamura.  First published in 1990, and first published in North America in 2003.

In post-apocalyptic Japan, the cruel Red King rules the desert land of Suo with an iron fist, stamping out the merest hint of rebellion in a swift and bloody manner.  In the village of Byakko, a pair of fraternal twins are born, and one of them is prophesized to be the leader who will bring peace to the land.  The elders believe this child to be the boy, Tatara, and his sister Sasara grows envious of the attention and liberties given to her brother with every year.

Their village remains safe until the two are well into their teens, when a raid led by the Red King leads to Tatara's death and the capture of many of the villagers.  Spurred on by her rage and grief, Sasara assumes her brother's identity and saves her village.  It is then that they realize that Tatara was never the chosen one - it was Sasara who would lead them to freedom.  Before that can happen, though, Sasara must recapture her brother's sword, save her mother, and try to avoid the advances of a strange and handsome stranger.

Now this is the kind of fantasy manga that I can really get behind!  While the setting takes a little bit from post-apocalyptic fiction along with Eastern and Western fantasy tropes and more than a fair bit of your standard hero's journey, it mixes these ideas up in a way that feels fresh and original.  It has a female lead who truly is a strong, independent woman without being a Strong Independent Woman (tm).  Sasara is a bold and quick-thinking warrior, but she's keenly aware of the elders and allies who now depend upon her for guidance and is touched by their support.  Even though she envied her brother as a child, she still cared for him as a brother and feels his loss greatly. 

She even has a romantic subplot, although that part is easily the most predictable part of the story.  Hmm, there's a somewhat douchey and assault-happy stranger whom she keeps running into at the hot springs.  He is unaware of her identity as a freedom fighter, and she has no idea who this jackass may be.  He couldn't possibly be the Red King because then she would be trapped in a ill-fated star-crossed sort of romance which will likely end badly for one, if not both of them.  It's much too early in the story to truly say where that plot line will go, and it's certainly got potential for drama, but you don't have to be well-read to have some idea of where this particular plotline is likely to go.  The rest of the cast is fairly familiar in their particular roles - there's a wise blind sage, a scarred ally of dubious morality, a gruff father figure, a kindly, supportive, and weak mother, weaselly peons serving as peons under the Red King, and so on.  They all serve their purpose to support Sasara on her quest, but they have nowhere near the complexity of our heroine.

The story structure may be familiar, but Tamura wisely takes her time to establish Sasara and her world before setting the main plot into motion.  We the readers get a good sense of what kind of person Sasara and her brother are like, and all that character building goes a long way towards making us care for and understand Sasara and her later actions.  It's not until halfway that Sasara takes over her brother's role, and by volume's end she's only taken a minor player in the Red King's court down, and even then her minor victory has some at some serious cost.  She's only begun to drop hints about dissent within the court and about the true identity of Sasara's would-be suitor, and is in no great rush to reveal them to the cast.  It's clear that Sasara is in for a long and hard-fought quest, but she's such a compelling character that by the end I was eager to read more.  While many elements of Basara felt familiar, I can truly say I was never bored by it.  It's an interesting blend of shoujo and epic fantasy, where there's just as much of a focus on the heroine's emotions and inner monologue as there is on destined saviors fighting against evil forces on horseback.  It's a work that fans of both genres can enjoy.

The art is far more typical of shoujo art from the 1980s.  The characters all have the pointy, triangular heads, big tousled hairstyles, and narrow, shimmering eyes that were so typical of the genre at that time.  Even though the style dates the artwork to some degree (seriously, the twins look like they could have been extras in a Pat Benetar video), Tamura puts a lot of detail into their looks.  She also tends to dictate the mood of a scene through her linework.  Most of the time her lines are solid and thick, but during more emotional points the linework becomes finer and more delicate.  She also gives Sasara's world an almost cinematic sort of scale.  There are lots of sweeping vistas mixed in the dramatic close-ups and layers.  Tamura is especially good at drawing action (and horses), something that often can't be said for a shoujo artist.  Her characters seem to move across the page with lightning speed, and often she uses stark black backdrops for better contrast and heightened drama. 

Thank goodness that Viz has been releasing so much of their back catalog digitally, because this smooth combination of shoujo drama with fantasy action makes Basara a sadly underlooked classic.  This is a series that deserves to be discovered for both older and newer manga readers alike.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan in 27 volumes.  All 27 volumes were released and are out of print.  The complete series is currently available in e-book form through Viz's website.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: HEART OF THOMAS (with bonus podcast!)

First of all, I recently appeared on the latest episode of The Five Point Podcast.  I've long been a fan of it, and it was fun to get to participate in one for once (and I hope to do more of them in the future).  So, if you're curious as to what I actually sound like, listen to me give my thoughts on Yamada's First Time:

Five Point Podcast Episode 55: Yamada's First Time by fivepointpodcast

With that done and said, on to the review!  Once again, I'm looking at another member of the Showa 29/Forty-Niners group of mangaka.  Instead of sci-fi, though, this is more of an intimate drama.  It's no less influential than To Terra was, though, and its subject matter and presentation reflect this. 

HEART OF THOMAS (Thomas no Shinzo), by Moto Hagio.  First published in 1974, and first published in North America in 2013.


In early 20th century Germany, at an all-male academy, a young boy has died.  Thomas Werner was loved by much of the student body, and his death (presumed to be an accident) is a terrible shock to them.  Only one person, the stoic and reserved Juli, knows the truth: Thomas's death was a suicide.  Juli knows because Thomas wrote him a suicide note that also served as a confession of love to Juli, and Juli finds himself loaded with guilt over Thomas's actions.  His guilt only increases when a new boy, Erich, comes to the school.  Erich is a brilliant child and a major mama's boy, but he is also the spitting image of Thomas, and both Juli and Erich hate the baggage such a connection brings them.  Over time, Juli, Erich, and Juli's roommate Oskar must come to terms with not only Thomas's death, but the guilt they all bear from their own pasts.


This book is not so much an emotional journey as it is an emotional saga.  It's the sort of story that could have only been found in 1970s shoujo, the sort of story that is saturated in repression and every sort of heightened emotion.  Heart of Thomas is all at once haunting, sensitive, and deeply tragic without ever descending into melodrama, and it's easy for me to see how this story became a classic.

As mentioned before, Hagio was one of the members of the storied Showa 29 group, and in many ways she could be considered the grandmother of boys' love as a genre.  Heart of Thomas was not her first shonen-ai work, but it is still considered one of the groundbreaking works of the genre.  As the incredibly informative essay by translator Matt Thorn explains, Hagio was inspired by the French film Les Amities Particulaires.  In it, two French schoolboys fall in love only to be forced apart by their teachers, and one of them ends up committing suicide.  Hagio took that scenario and essentially turned on its ear for Heart of Thomas.  Here the suicide isn't the culmination of a tragic romance, but the catalyst that sets things into motion, an act that haunts the main characters for much of the story.

While Thomas may be the titular character, the story is really about three of the boys left behind after his death: Juli, Oskar, and Erich.  While not all of them knew Thomas, his death ends up being the key to unlocking and moving past the guilt that each boy bears in his own life.  Juli looks and acts prim and proper, but this is merely the front he presents to others to hide all the guilt he bears over Thomas, his own family, and a terrible incident with an older student.  Oskar is more laid-back and personable, often serving as advisor and mediator to his fellow students, but he too is caught in a family drama where no one is quite willing to speak the truth.  Finally there is Erich, who is a brilliant student but a fragile and sensitive boy.  He's obsessed with his mother in a fashion that verges upon incestuous, and he only wishes to return to her so that things can go back to the way they were.  He wants no part of his mother's new husband, his schoolmates fawning over his looks, or everyone connecting him to a dead boy he never even knew.  All of them are affected by Thomas, be it in life or in death, and ironically it is that same death which allows them to move on with their lives and begin the long, tough process of growing up.

While this work is considered a pioneer in shonen-ai, the actual homoerotic content is fairly subtle.  There's no hardcore action to be found here, and no one in particular identifies as gay.  Instead we have a lot of talking about feelings, emotional outburst, and the occasional tearful kiss.  Honestly, Hagio's approach to the story reminded me a lot of modern-day yuri.  They take similar approaches to relationships in that the emphasis is more on deep romantic longing instead of lustful desire.  There's a subtle implementation that these feelings are transitory, just the fleeting crushes of a bunch of kids that don't have a lot of heterosexual outlets.  It's even set in a single-sex school, although the notion of such places being hotbeds of homosexuality far predate this story.  Such notions don't diminish the intensity of the feelings and relationships on display, it might be a little jarring for those more used to more modern, explicit works.

The pacing here is slow and purposeful.  Hagio is more than content to let the emotion and mystery build bit by bit, day by day.  Little hints about the characters are dropped here and there, little flashes of memory pass by, and each one builds upon the reader's knowledge of our three main characters.  Admittedly, Juli's inner monologue gets the most attention, but then as we learn he has the most guilt to bear.  He not only has the burden of Thomas's feelings, but also the guilt his family lays upon him for his parentage, guilt about his faith in God, and guilt from abuse at the hand of a former classmate. 
Juli tries so hard to keep his emotions contained and tries so hard to push away those that disturb his self-enforced calm, so of course it is his many fits and agonies that end up splashing across the page. While guilt and repression are common elements here, there's also a great emphasis on family secrets.  Between the three boys, they have to deal with their families hiding things like affairs, wrongful deaths, even physical and emotional abuse.   Still, Hagio keeps things hopeful - all these secrets and all this guilt might threaten to crush the boys' spirits, but once they actually start talking with others about it, they can start to find acceptance and forgiveness for themselves and others.

Heart of Thomas is an achingly beautiful romantic drama.  While the focus tends to be on internal torment versus external action, the thoughts and troubles of these three young men remain compelling and touching.  The story's sensitive approach to what was then a brand-new genre demonstrates just why this story became a classic.


Hagio's art is a shining example of 1970s shoujo art.  The character designs are pretty and slender with flowing hair and shiny, jewel-like eyes that seem to stare into the reader's soul.  Hagio doesn't put in a lot of period-specific details beyond the boys' wardrobes, with their fine, crisp suits, slender knotted ties, and long, boyish curls.  The thoughts of her characters are given shape in dramatic explosions of screentones, wind, fire, flowers, and ghostly silhouettes, layered behind the characters like so many drifting clouds.  There's also a fair bit of angelic imagery within them, which makes sense considering all the talk of death and guilt over one's sins.  There's an overall delicacy to Hagio's art which enhances the equally fragile, emotional tone of the story.  Even the few instances of coloring are delicate, mostly rendered in shades of magenta.


This series is presented in a large hardbound volume which is as handsome as it is dense.  As mentioned before, there's a very informative essay after the story which does a great job at putting both Moto Hagio's career and Heart of Thomas in historical context.  It's mildly distracting that the essay reads right-to-left, considering that the manga itself is unflipped, but that's the only (and decidedly minor) complaint I have about this book.

Major kudos have to be given to Fantagraphics for releasing this classic shoujo series to English speaking readers.  Heart of Thomas is beautiful, touching, romantic, tragic, and so much more.  It's got a hefty size and somewhat hefty pricetag, but it is worth every single penny.

This series is published by Fantagraphics.  This series is complete in 3 volumes, which are presented in a single omnibus.  It is currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!

Friday, August 8, 2014

One Volume Wonder: BARBARA

Well, it's August once more, which means it's time for another round of Old School Month.  Much like before, we'll kick things off with yet another Tezuka work.  This one, though, is very, VERY different from the last one, and not just because it's a One Volume Wonder.

BARBARA, by Osamu Tezuka.  First published in 1973, and first published in North American in 2012.

Yosuke Mikura is a famed author, but he spends most of his days wandering the streets of Tokyo, where he searches for inspiration as he laments his own troubles.  One day his wanderings leads him to Barbara, a filthy, homeless drunk woman who still manages to quote French poetry with ease.  She latches onto Yosuke and more than once inadvertently saves him from danger and distraction.  Is Barbara the muse of inspiration that Yosuke has been seeking, or will she lead him to ruin as well?


Barbara was one of the first crowd-sourced Tezuka works released by DMP, and right away it distinguishes itself from those used to Tezuka's older, better known works.  If you're expecting something simple and child-like like Princess Knight or Unico, you may be in for a shock.  While I do get (to some degree) what Tezuka was aiming for with this work, he sure takes his sweet-ass time getting there, and the path it treads is one that is ultimately very strange, kind of rambling, and rather cynical and pessimistic.

It starts out in a very episodic manner.  Yosuke will encounter some strange woman, he ends up falling for her, and Barbara unintentionally saves him from some strange fate.  That fate could be anything from sleeping with a dog (no, I'm not joking about that) to just getting lost in his own past.  The pace only picks up once Tezuka starts tying things together into a singular plot thread, as Yosuke starts to find real success as well as the temptations of business, revolution, and politics.  His newfound success also leads Yosuke to reconsider his relationship with Barbara.  Before, he viewed her as little more than a curious nuisance.  Afterwards, he begins to fall for her, and it's their relationship that drives both the remaining story as well as the larger themes of the story at large.

It's pretty clear that Barbara is Yosuke's muse in both a literal and metaphorical sense.  Before she comes along, Yosuke is too busy being a grade-A ass.  He's drowning in his own self-loathing and doubts, and he's convinced himself that he is unable to love a normal woman.  Barbara is a far more difficult character to pin down, although a lot of that is on purpose.  As a muse, her personality seems to shape itself based on the needs and desires of those around her.  The few things that seem to be constant are her hedonistic tendancies and a childlike sense of selfishness.  Put them together and you have a couple that's hard to like, but interesting to follow and observe. 

It's only once she enters his life that he is able to find some focus and inspiration in his life.  It's only then that Yosuke begins to see that Barbara isn't a bother, but instead a beautiful source of inspiration.  She's literally given him a reason to live and work, and he falls for her almost instantly upon his realization.  Of course, the only problem with loving a muse is that inspiration is a fickle thing.  It can leave just as swiftly as it comes, and no one man can keep it to himself, even if he wishes to in the name of love.  Worse still, a man could easily drive himself to ruin trying to recapture that same source of inspiration.

You can see how such a moral could appeal to a man like Tezuka at this particular point in his career.  Tezuka had already been creating manga for a couple of decades with a lot of big name titles to his credit.  By the 1970s he was wanting to expand his horizons and struggling to stay relevant with the masses.  His work tended to be shorter, stranger, and more experimental, and Barbara just happens to be one of those experiments.  Is it a successful experiment?  Not entirely.  Even when the story finds its focus, it does tend to ramble.  I swear it takes the story just as long for the story to conclude, dragging out every bit of misery, as it does to get going.  The characters are abrasive and hard to relate to, even during the good times.  Barbara is ultimately a difficult work to like, but a fascinating one to think about.


While the artstyle is still recognizable as that of Tezuka, Barbara reflects the works of an artist who has come a long way from the simple, Disney-influenced forms of Astro Boy and Princess Knight.  The character designs still have some of that old-school rubberiness to them, but their faces and bodies tend to be more angular and realistic.  When you do see exaggeration, it tends to be more like a caricature than a cartoon.  Despite the large print size, the panels tend to be small and thickly packed on the page, only expanding during big dramatic moments or episode of supernatural goings-on.  He does use a lot of mundane backgrounds, but at times the imagery expands into the bizarre and psychedelic.  It's hardly a surprise, considering that this was made in the 1970s. 

The later works of Tezuka are not always an easy, friendly thing to read, but let it never be said that Barbara isn't thought-provoking.  It's an interesting contrast to his better-known works, and while it's not a completely successful work, those with an interest in more experimental, introspective work may find something of value here.

This book was published by Digital Manga Press.  It is currently out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through RightStuf.com!