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!