Monday, August 17, 2015


Let's keep up with this romantic vein with an old-school shoujo classic, one of many that Tokyopop put out in their time.

KARE KANO (Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo, or His and Hers Circumstances), by Masami Tsuda.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2003.


Yukino Miyazawa is the perfect student.  She is pretty, popular, athletic and generally considered one of the best students in the class.  This perfection is merely an act, though, one that's achieved through hard training, constant study, and obsessing over every element of her looks.  Why does Yukari go through all of this?  For the attention!  She is quite literally in it for the ego boost she gets from each and every compliment.  There is only one threat to Yukino's perfect image, and its name is Arima Soichiro.  He's her equal in looks, brains, and talent, and Yukino initially regards him as the competition.  When he discovers her secret, though, he begins to open up to her.  Soon enough Yukino discovers that no only does Arima have a lot of issues of his own, but that her own feelings for him may be changing.


There are countless shoujo stories about schoolkids falling in love, and it's hard for anyone to do anything new or original with that idea.  So how has Kare Kano managed to persist in the hearts and minds of so many despite not doing anything particularly new or original?  I think it comes down to the characters.

Yukino and Arima are Kare Kano's greatest strengths.  They're not just another pair of one note clichés, they're not hopelessly naïve, and are completely honest about their flaws.  Yukino outright states more than once that she knows she's a total egomaniac.  She knows that her true self isn't the polished poised student, but the track suit-wearing, bespectacled, and mildly lazy girl she lets herself be at home, yet she doesn't care.  So long as she gets praise, she'll bust her ass to keep up her own personal charade.  Arima is in his own way putting up a façade, although his is borne more out of obligation than selfish desire.  Thus, our protagonists are already united from the start by their shared need for a public persona to avoid disappointing others.  This is a dilemma that many a teenager could relate to, even if most of them wouldn't go to quite such extremes, and it helps to give our leads a bit of complexity that is not common in shoujo.

The events of the story so far are not all that remarkable, although the bits and pieces we learn about Arima suggest that there will be a lot more family drama to come.  Still, there's some appeal in what just. how these two silly kids figuring out their mutual attraction.  That's also part of the reason that I like the side story after the main one.  It's about an extremely shy girl who gets close to the tall and silent new guy in her class.  Her glasses get broken in an accident and he offers to be her sight in the mean time.  The girl's neuroses were a bit simple and bit much for my taste, but the male lead was terribly endearing as he reveals himself to be a rather adorable dork.

Kare Kano isn't the kind of story that pushes boundaries, but instead excels just through solid character writing.  It gives its leads some interesting foibles and the interaction between the two of them is fascinating.  Sometimes, even such a simple effort is enough to make a story a classic.


The art and characters alike are drawn very finely, verging on sparseness.  It's still very much in a traditional shoujo style, but it avoids a lot of the excesses of the genre.  That doesn't mean that Tsuda doesn't break out the screen tones and flower petals during the more dramatic moments, but she uses such things sparingly since her characters (especially Yukino) are so expressive.  She's also rather sparing with the backgrounds, using patterns and subdued screen tones instead to fill in for them.  Where Tsuda really shines is with the way she uses page and panel composition.  In particular, she's fond of using tall vertical panels during big dramatic moments, and they work well to make these moments stand out visually.  It's a nice way for Tsuda to make her otherwise sparse art stand out and give it a few moments of quiet beauty.


Kare Kano is a classic schoolroom shoujo that owes a lot to its well written cast of characters.  If the artwork had been stronger or more distinctive, this would have been an easy green light, but as it is it's still something that every shoujo fan should check out.

This series was published by Tokyopop.  This series is complete in Japan, with 21 volumes available.  All 21 were published and all are currently out of print. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015


It's rather appropriate to review this series now, considering that it's finally ending after running for nearly THREE DECADES and getting an omnibus rerelease.  After reading this volume, though, it's easy to see how this series could stick around for so long.

OH MY GODDESS! (Aa! Megami-sama), by Kosuke Fujishima.  First published in 1988, and first published in North America in 1994.


Keiichi Morisato is a poor college student who orders out for food one night only to end up reaching the goddess Belldandy instead.  She offers to grant him one wish, and Keiichi offhandedly wishes that a goddess like her would stay with him forever.  His wish comes true as he and Belldandy are now inseperatable, and while this causes a lot of trouble Keiichi soon finds himself smitten with sweet, gentle Belldandy.  Now he has to find a way to declare his love for her, keep Belldandy's true identity a secret from others, and help his friends with their own problems.


Oh My Goddess! is a very sweet, very casual, and slightly unfocused manga (although how unfocused depends on the edition you read).  It's not perfect, but it's one of those rare magical girlfriend series that can appeal to both sexes and it's easy so why it's still so appealing even after all these years.

Fujisawa wastes no time getting the story going.  Within the first twenty pages, Keiichi and Belldandy are bound together and the premise is set.  After that, though, he hits the brakes hard and is more than content to take his sweet time with the story.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it means that Fujisawa can take his time and come up with all sorts of equally sweet and funny scenarios to throw his cast of characters into.  Best of all, it's driven more by conflict and farce than the sort of raunchy fanservice that defines a lot of later magical girlfriend manga, which means that Oh My Goddess! avoids a lot of the lame gags and tropes that tend to come with that territory.  The only problem is that all that meandering doesn't do much for the characters.  They might get plenty of screen time, but they don't change all that much from beginning to end.  Belldandy is always sweetness and light personified, Keiichi remains as hapless in life and love as ever, and neither of them are willing to make the first official move towards becoming a proper couple.  Still, compared to a lot of other characters in his position, Keiichi is fairly dignified.  He may be short and unlucky in love, but he has an education and some skill with machines, and gives him an edge that the Tenchis and Keitaros of the manga world will never possess.

Now, I've not discussed the plot in any detail in part because what stories you get depend on what edition of the first volume you read.  The first edition was heavily edited to help it more closely match the then-current OVA and to help the story move along more quickly.  These missing scenes were put back in all of the later editions, and having read both versions I can say with some authority that the later editions flow so much better than the edited one.  Yeah, that means it takes a lot longer to get to Urd and Skuld, but it gives our leading couple plenty of time to get relatively comfortable before things start getting really wacky.  It also allows a lot of the supporting cast to get their moment to shine, be it Keiichi's school friends, his sister, some of his other classmates, and even some of his teachers. It'll never be mistaken for an eventful manga, but Oh My Goddess! remains an eminently comfortable and endearing manga as well as one of the finest examples of its respective genre.


Fujisawa's character designs are decidedly odd even for its own time.  For reasons I cannot explain, both Keiichi and Belldandy have these weird, heavy-browed, diamond-shaped heads.  It does tend to distinguish them visually from the rest of the cast (who tend to be drawn in a blocky, cartoon-like manner), but it goes tend to make their faces shift about strangely when viewed from an angle.  Expressions tend to be big and cartoony all around, which means that Keiichi in particular gets to make some spectacular Tex Avery-style bug-eyes.  The recent omnibus rerelease features color pages at the beginning of some of the chapters, and they look great so long as you can get used to Belldandy's old, silvery hair.  Otherwise the presentation is quite sedate, with very little flair to the panels or the pages.  It's not a flashy series, but that lack of flash just adds to the coziness of the work instead of against it.


Oh My Goddess! is rambling and occasionally a little odd, but its gentle pacing, general innocence, and entertaining cast make this one of the few magical girlfriend manga that's worth seeking out. 
It was true way back when, and it's still true now.

This series is published by Dark Horse.  This series is complete in Japan with 48 volumes available.  All 48 volumes have been published in both single volumes and 3-in-1 omnibuses, and all are currently in print.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


It's August, which means it's time once more for another month of old-school manga.  Also, this weekend was 8/01, a date near and dear to yaoi fans everywhere.  So I figured what better way to combine the two than with some old-school shonen-ai? 

SHOUT OUT LOUD! (Sakende Yaruze!), by Satosumi Takaguchi.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2006.


Shino hadn't seen his son in years, not since his teenaged marriage ended in divorce.  After his ex-wife's death, Shino is reunited with his now teenaged son Nakaya.  While Nakaya is far from impressed with his father, Shino is determined to be a good father and a good provider for him.  Shino is so determined to do so that he decides to supplement his struggling voice acting career with some boys' love audio dramas.  Shino's determined to keep his side jobs a secret from Nakaya, but how long will that last when his coworkers are determined to make their professional relationships into very intimate ones?


I don't know if I've ever come across a BL manga that's in as much conflict with itself as Shout Out Loud! is.  On one hand, you have this sensitive and fairly nuanced family drama going on between an estranged father and son.  On the other, you have a fairly standard (if somewhat meta) BL set-up between a voice actor and his fellow cast and crew members.  While both are handled with some degree of competence, the two can never quite mesh together, and it leads to some jarring tone shifts throughout the whole volume.

It's clear from early on that Takaguchi has a far stronger grasp of the father-son relationship here than she does on the smutty ones.  Shino and Nakaya's relationship is strained in a very understandable and believable way.  Nakaya chafes at being stuck with a man he barely knows.  Early on he resents Shino for supposedly abandoning his mother, and even after they start getting along he's boggled by the fact that his father is so emotional and innocent.  In all fairness, we see that Nakaya's got his own problems as he deals with the prospect of turning his talent for hockey into a career and a pregnancy scare that echoes his own father's situation at his age.  Takaguchi never takes things too far into melodrama and she's willing to take the time to let their relationship defrost naturally instead of solving everything with just a simple man-to-man talk.  Shino and Nakaya are the true heart of this story and everything about their half of the story works beautifully.

Then there's the BL half of things, and this is where Takaguchi starts to unintentionally slip up.  It quickly becomes apparent that Shino's youthful looks, boyish voice, and overall naïvete makes him the ideal uke.  This means that his castmates think it's perfectly acceptable to constantly hover over Shino or take every opportunity to corner him or take advantage of him physically.  Hell, one of them even goes so far as to show up at Shino and Nakaya's home and hits on Nakaya even as he confesses to hitting on Shino.  It seems like all of Shino's coworkers aren't so concerned with things like 'consent' or 'sexual harassment,' and it left me feeling fearful for Shino instead of titillated at the prospect of BL action.  I know that this sort of thing is generally more accepted in BL and that I should be thankful that Shino's coworkers don't resort to rape unlike so many other semes, but the whole dynamic about it is just too creepy to intrigue.  It's also nowhere near as well-written as the family moments, so it also comes off as frivolous and hollow in comparison.  It's almost like these two halves are taking place in different universes, and maybe I would have enjoyed this more if I could just pretend that the voice acting portion is completely separate from the rest.

In spite of my misgivings about the story, Shout Out Loud! still stands out as an above-average example of shonen-ai.  It's got a lot of heart and its leading men are really well-written.  It's just that everything good about it is everything that doesn't have to do with the BL content, and a better balance between the two halves would have made Shout Out Loud! an instant classic.


Shout Out Loud! has art that has aged far better than most of its contemporaries.  Much of that is due to Takaguchi's rather restrained art style.  While everyone tends to be rather pretty, the characters here are nowhere near as stylized and disproportionate as one tends to see in shonen-ai, and it helps to ground the story in something closer to our reality.  If anything, her art is almost underdrawn as she tends to favor a lot of light, delicate linework and sparsely sketched backgrounds.  It's also quite chaste, never getting more explicit than a kiss.  That's to be expected, though, when you learn that this was published in a shoujo magazine instead of a BL anthology.  Still, it works with the general simplicity of the art and it's always easy on the easy and easy to follow, and that's why it's weathered these last two decades so well.


While Shout Out Loud! is hurt by the fact that the BL content is the weakest portion of the book, it's still strongly written and surprisingly nuanced.  It's a work that's more approachable to newcomers than a lot of shonen-ai, and it's easily one of the best works put out under the Blu imprint.

This series was published by Tokyopop under their Blu imprint.  This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available.  All 5 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.