It's April, so in honor of the fourth month of the year let's take a look at some 4-koma manga! Now I could start out with the obvious choice here, but instead I was going to look at a more modern example of successful 4-koma manga.
Then I remembered that I had already reviewed Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun.
No matter, though! I remembered that there was another amusing 4-koma that came out last year, albeit one that flew far further under the radar.
MERMAN IN MY TUB (Orenchi no Furo Jijo), by Itokichi. First published in 2011 and first published in North America in 2015.
Tatsumi thought he was just saving some random blond guy washed up on the riverside. He didn't expect that man to be a literal merman. He certainly didn't expect said merman (named Wakasa) to take up residence in Tatsumi's bathtub so he can eat Tatsumi's food, read magazines, and generally get overly giddy about the luxuries of everyday human life. Things only get more complicated as Wakasa's other half-sea creature friends start showing up, along with Tatsumi's extremely possessive little sister.
I actually reviewed this series a while back for seasonal reviews over at Infinite Rainy Day. It had its ups and downs, but I did generally like it. That being said, I would have never expected its source material to come out in English until Seven Seas picked it up. Upon review, my opinion of this first volume is pretty much the same one I had of its animated counterpart. It can be kind of irregular in quality, but it does land a good gag here and there and is weirdly endearing and cozy in its own right.
Tatsumi isn't so much a protagonist as he is a straightman. After a while, his underreaction to...well, pretty much everything becomes a gag onto itself. I can live with that, as it's a welcome relief from the standard manzai set-up that so many comedy manga like to use. The real star of the manga is Wakasa, and Itokichi gets a lot of mileage out of this single character. You get a lot of the expected fish-out-of-water jokes (pun not intended) and some of them are quite amusing, but he does get to be more than just mere comic relief. Yes, Wakasa is childish and naïve, but he's a genuinely good-hearted soul who simply cannot contain his enthusiasm for the world around him and tries his best to share that enthusiasm with Tatsumi. Amazingly, the relationship between Tatsumi and Wakasa is NOT played up for fujo fanservice. This premise would seem to lend itself to a lot of slashiness, but aside from a few gags here and there (including one that evokes tentacle rape of all things), but it's one of the few places where the writing practices some real restraint. That helps to keep the focus on the funny and not the shipping.
Still, this premise would have swiftly become boring and claustrophobic if it focused solely on Tatsumi and Wakasa. That's why it was a good idea on Itokichi's part to regularly keep adding new half-fish people one at a time, and each of them brings their own flavor of humor. There's half-octopus Takasu, who is handy with his tentacles; jellyfish-man Mizuni, who is calm, gentle, and forgetful; and tiny half-hermit crab Maki, who is reclusive and prickly but good at keeping the tub clean. Again, the jokes aren't necessarily complex, but the jokes focus more on the personalities of the fishmen and not just loud wackiness. There's only one addition to the cast that doesn't work: Tatsumi's little sister Kasumi. Her only gag is that she's an insanely jealous little imouto, complete with all the awkward fanservice that tends to come with that role anymore. These gags are not only incredibly awkward, but they don't fit the light tone of the story at all. I don't know why Itokichi felt the need to add this unneeded bit of otaku humor when the story (such as it is) works so much better without it.
Merman In My Tub is not necessarily the kind of manga that will leave you regularly laughing out loud, but it every so often make you smile and even feel a little warm and fuzzy. It's got a great balance of humor and heart, little sister gags not withstanding, and the 4-koma format keeps the gags coming without getting stale. Good 4-komas are not common, but this one manages to edge its way into that select group.
4-koma manga is a format that doesn't demand great art, and Itokichi keeps things fairly modest because of that. If the art has any particular problem, it's that the character designs (Tatsumi and Wakasa in particular) are rather overdesigned for such small, modest panels. Wakasa in particular has this bizarre blond hair cone on the back of his head that never fails to baffle me. At least she is very good at capturing Wakasa's liveliness on the page. She loves to draw his big goofy expressions, moments of superdeformed reactions, and his tail thrashing around in involuntary glee.The characters tend to be rather tightly packed into the panels, Itokichi does liven things up through the use of crazy angles and the odd bit of dramatic lighting. After all, there is only so much any artist can do when 90% of their story takes place inside a single, ordinary Japanese bathroom, but Itokichi manages to make the most of her limitations.
Merman In My Tub manages to become more than pure fangirl bait by putting some care into the characters, some variety in the humor, and adding a little bit of heart to the whole thing.
This series is published by Seven Seas. This series is ongoing in Japan with five volumes available. Three volumes have been published and all are currently in print.