Tuesday, February 24, 2015


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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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!