Sunday, June 19, 2016


Oh Mayu Shinjo.  We meet again.  It's not the first time she's written a manga about musicians, so she was a natural choice for this month.  I just wish she didn't have so much of a taste for trashy romance.

SENSUAL PHRASE (Kaikan Furezu), by Mayu Shinjo.  First published in 1997 and first published in North America in 2004.


Aine is a romantic high school girl with dreams of becoming a great songwriter.  On her way to an audition, she nearly gets hit by a car.  Inside that car is Sakuya, the handsome lead singer of the popular band Lucifer.  The accident causes Aine to lose her lyric sheet, and at the concert she discovers that Sakuya found them and turned them into a song.  He immediately makes her the band's official songwriter, and he's equally determined to give her plenty of material to write about by attempting to seduce her at every turn.  This attention soon makes Aine the target of many jealous parties.  Will Lucifer's fandom and Aine's school friends tear their romance apart before it even begins?


Sensual Phrase is the manga equivalent of a bad romance novel, even more so than the manga adaptations of actual Harlequin novels floating around the internet.  It constantly uses cheap shoujo clichés to further its thin plot along.  Maybe this is fun when you're a teenager, but as a grown woman I found it tedious.

Aine and Sakuya's relationship is shallow, dull, and deeply unbalanced.  Aine is only distinguished by her earnestness and a rather muddled understanding of her own desires.  Sakuya, on the other hand, is smugness personified from beginning to end.  The only connections the two seem to share is a common interest in music and a mutual lust for one another.  Even then, the latter is mostly expressed by having Sakuya molesting Aine whenever he can (whether she wants him to or not) and all but pissing on her to make Aine as 'his'.  Shinjo clearly recognized that this could make him look like the creep that he truly is, so she was determined to give him plenty of moments of heroism.  What that means in practice, though, is that she keeps throwing strange men and bitchy girls at Aine so that Sakuya can play at being a white knight while Aine whimpers on the sidelines.

When she's not writing yet another bit of cheap drama, she fills the space by having Aine and damn near every other woman in the story go into raptures about how Sakuya is so beautiful, talented, and all-around amazing.  Apparently he's so dazzling, so literally radiant that he overshadows all the other band members, which is why I couldn't tell you a damn thing about them.  From my experience, the more that a mangaka has to explain to the reader how awesome a character is instead of demonstrating it, the less awesome the character truly is.  Thus, her claims come off as incredibly weak.  They are further undercut by the fact that the lyrics on the page don't exactly convey any sense of excellence.  Mind you, this is due in part to the difficulties of translating lyrics from one language to another.  Like poetry, it's not enough to translate it literally.  It takes a flare for rhyme, rhythm and language to make it sound like something someone could sing.  This undercuts the notion that Aine is supposed to be so talented at writing love songs despite her youth and romantic inexperience. 

Sensual Phrase wants so badly to be a risqué showbiz romance, but I have a hard time believing that even the teen girl audience this was meant for would buy into this.  There's no passion, no genuine tension, and no personality to be found here, and without any of those it simply blends into the crowd of shoujo manga.


Shinjo's artwork is as clichéd as her storywriting.  The characters are exceedingly average-looking.  The girls are round and big-eyed, and the boys are stereotypical bishonen.  One quality that does distinguish Shinjo from the crowd is her commitment to fanservice.  Whenever Aine's clothes are ripped off (yes, this happens more than once), her undergarments and nipples are fully detailed.  Sadly, she's not even-handed with this sort of detail, as Sakuya's nipples are never to be seen despite being shirtless fairly often.  She doesn't bother with shading, so everything looks incredibly flat. 


Shoujo Beat titles rarely include any sort of extras, but why on earth did Viz feel the need to pad this out with a short essay from some freelance journalist?


Sensual Phrase is little more than a music-themed, modern-day bodice-ripper.  The story is nothing but sexist shoujo clichés and the art is plain and generic.  Sensual Phrase is about as sensual as a tuna fish sandwich.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 18 volumes available.  All the volumes were published and are currently out of print. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016


OK, I've been slacking off.  Working on a wedding will do that to you.  Well, no time like the present then to take a look at one of the most notable titles to be lost in the Del-Ray/Kodansha takeover.

No, not Moyasimon.  No, not Mushishi either.  The other one.

NODAME CANTABILE (Nodame Kantabire), by Tomoko Ninomiya.  First published in 2001 and first published in North America in 2005.


Shinichi Chiaki is a brilliant music student, even by the high standards of the music school he attends.  He's determined to become a great conductor like his mentor.  There are just two problems with that plan.  First of all, Chiaki is afraid of flying, which prevents him from studying abroad with said mentor.  Secondly, Chiaki is so arrogant about his skills that he believes that none of his professors are good enough to teach him what he wants to learn.  His latest teacher flat-out kicks him out of his classes and sends him to Eito-sensei, a teacher renowned for taking in all the drop-outs and difficult kids.  It's through him that Shinichi meets Megumi Noda, aka Nodame.  She's something of an idiot savant, in that she's a simple-minded slob with little to no musical discipline, but she can learn just about any piece by ear and plays with an incredible amount of emotion.  Chiaki takes it upon himself to clean up Nodame's life and turn her into a proper piano student, but in doing so he learns just as much about himself and music as he does about Nodame.


It really pains me to say this because I know a lot of manga reviews loved this series.  Still, I have to be honest, and this is the truth: I did not like Nodame Cantabile.  Why?  Because I couldn't stand the main couple.

I've gone over some of my personal pet peeves of fiction on this site, but one I don't talk about so much is my dislike of Manic Pixie Dream Girls.  They're one of the worst tropes in romance.  If I see one more story about a girl who isn't a girl so much as she is a collection of oh-so-wacky and/or countercultural quirks who exists mostly to cheer up some sad-sack guy, I'm going to puke.  So already Nodame Cantabile was at a disadvantage because Nodame is very much a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, minus the Manic part.  Her quirk is apparently living like a child, from the way she lives in a apartment made of trash piles and mold to her infrequent bathing habits to the way she steals food from friends even when asked not to.  This gives her relationship with Chiaki a paternalistic air that makes the prospect of a romance between these two hard to stomach.  Worse still, once Chiaki enters her life, Nodame imprints on him like a puppy.  She thrives on the attention he gives her, no matter whether it's positive or not.  When he's not around, she's depressed to the point that she can barely bother with everyday tasks, much less playing music.  I understand that Ninomiya means for all of this to be charming and that we're supposed to overlook her quirks for the sake of her talent, but I have to agree with Chiaki: Nodame is a disaster of a girl.

That's not to say that Chiaki is much better.  He's a selfish, stuck-up, neurotic little asshole.  You have to wonder why he even bothered with this school if all he can do is complain about his professors while idolizing his childhood mentor.  You also have to wonder why he wouldn't bother with some actual therapy to deal with his fear of flight considering how blatantly it is holding him back from his dreams.  That being said, his character arc here is handled far more gracefully than Nodame's.  By interacting with her and the other trouble students, Chiaki is forced out of his comfort zones and to think outside the box.  He discovers within himself the ability to teach others without necessarily sacrificing their own unique styles.  He's still kind of an asshole by volume's end, but he's clearly on a path to becoming far less of one.  I just wish that it didn't have to come at Nodame's hands, as being around her tends to bring out a lot of his worst qualities in the name of 'comedy.' 

So I have some issues with the characters, but what about the music itself?  After all, this is a story about music students.  As such, it should be able to communicate some of the passion and beauty of their performances.  Sadly, Ninomiya isn't quite up to the task.  She can describe the music all she wants and draw the characters making weird faces as they lose themselves in the performance, but like so many others before her, she can't quite make up for the lack of audio.  Unless you've got the pieces queued up to play along, something will always be lost.

Nodame Cantabile has such a fine reputation, and it's truly a shame that I find it so frustrating.  The biggest problem was that Nodame and Chiaki drove me nuts most of the time, and because of that I couldn't get invested in anything going on between them.  Ninomiya clearly knows her stuff when it comes to classical music, but her approach to romance is somewhat lacking.


Nodame Cantabile's art is simple but effective.  The characters are simple and plain, and sometimes there are still some rough lines left in, as if Ninomiya didn't erase them after inking the page.  Still, there are little bits of weirdness that give the characters a bit of charm, such as the weird faces Nodame makes while performing.  She doesn't get terribly fancy when it comes to drawing clothes, but she clearly loves using fancy screentones to decorate Nodame's dresses.  This plainness is contrasted with the level of loving detail she gives the instruments, which are clearly drawn from reference.  She also tries to capture the quality of a performance through doodles and screentones, be they nauseous swirls, shoujo sparkles, or crackling lightning.  It doesn't entirely make up for the lack of literal music, but it's a good idea and it's executed fairly well.


It's weird.  As much as I didn't like the leading couple, I didn't entirely hate Nodame Cantabile.  I get what it's trying to do, and as far as Chiaki is concerned it's actually working fairly well.  It's just that the romantic element didn't work for me at all, and no amount of visual charm could completely compensate for this.

This series was published by Del-Ray.  This series is complete in Japan with 23 volumes available.  16 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.

Friday, June 3, 2016


Last month required reading a lot of heavy drama, so let's lighten things up by looking at some manga about music and musical performance.  Surely I could find something cute and fun to read to kick things off!  So why the hell did I pick up this series expecting that?

FULL MOON O SAGASHITE (Furu Mun o Sagashite), by Arina Tanemura.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2005.


Mitsuki Koyama might be the most tragic girl around.  She's an orphan living with her strict grandmother and separated from her only friend by an ocean.  On top of that, she's been diagnosed with throat cancer at the tender age of 11.  She could remove the cancer with surgery, but doing so would remove her ability to sing.  Mitsuki loves singing too much to do so, even if it means her inevitable death.  Fate intervenes for her in the form of two shinigami who make her a deal.  Mitsuki has only a year to live, but they will give her the ability to age herself up and hide her identity so she audition for a music label.  She can pursue her dream of becoming an idol, but at the end of year she will peacefully and willingly die.  For Mitsuki, any deal is worth it if she can share her song with the world and find her beloved long-lost friend.


It's been a while since I've tackled an Arina Tanemura work.  The last time I looked at one, I lamented how she had a terrible tendency to drown out any good ideas or interesting concepts with a zillion other plot threads and a hectic sense of pacing.  From what I see here, it seems that this a not just a problem with Sakura-Hime in particular, but with Full Moon as well.

Mitsuki is just unbelievable - literally!  First, there's her actual personality, which is so saintly and perfect that it would make even Tohru Honda puke.  Then there's her backstory.  I've seen opera heroines with less tragedy in their lives than her!  It's not enough for her to be an orphan, but she also has to have an unpleasant foster parent AND pining for a lost love AND suffering from terminal cancer!  It's a blatantly naked attempt at building sympathy for Mitsuki to compensate for her lack of personality, and it's almost laughable in execution.  It's especially misguided when you consider that Mitsuki does have something that's genuinely tragic: she knows when she's going to die.  Even if she succeeds as an idol singer, she knows that it will not last and every day is one more closer to her death.  That's genuinely tragic and that's something that should tinge her career with sadness, even regret.  It's too bad then that Tanemura pretty much forgets about this from the moment that she wins her audition.  There's no time to be sad - Mitsuki is going to be a STAR!

The idol singer parts of her life aren't handled much better.  They're either mined for cheap comedy (like Mitsuki's drunken manager) or for cheap drama (such as the rival girl who passive-aggressively bullies Mitsuki).  Meanwhile there's also the plotline with Meroko and Takuto, the two shinigami making this all possible.  Meroko has a giant obvious crush on Takuto, and Takuto is not only oblivious to all this, but is hinted to have a connection to Mitsuki in his own past.  The unrequited love angle doesn't just adds another complication to a plot already full of them, but it also overshadows the more compelling one that's just about Takuto.  I just hope that the weirdly romantic tone of it is entirely in my imagination and not intentional because MITSUKI IS FREAKING 12 AND I DON'T CARE IF HE'S A SUPERNATURAL BEING, THAT IS CREEPY.

There truly is a germ of a good idea in Full Moon, where a young girl gets a chance to live out her dream before her imminent death. The problem is that as a writer, Tanemura can't give it the space or the solemnity it needs to truly shine.  Instead she would rather keep adding complications and blatantly going for the heartstrings in the hopes of keeping the audience distracted.


My general opinion of Tanemura's art hasn't changed.  She still draws the same cutesy characters with their overly simple faces that are dominated by those enormous saucer eyes.  She still seems to prefer drawing fancy, frilly dresses over drawing the characters wearing them.   It's not only Mitsuki that suffers from this; the shinigami wear silly costumes that are meant to comfort dying children but instead look like the early 90s exploded on them.  She also still can't be bothered with backgrounds and instead just pastes every sort of screentone and effect possible over the empty space.  The panels are still hopelessly cluttered that it sometimes becomes difficult to follow.  The only major difference is that the artwork of Full Moon doesn't feature the fine detail that served as the saving grace for Sakura-Hime's art.  It seems that Tanemura's artistic flaws are not a new thing, and it's a style that just always rubs me the wrong way.


Arina Tanemura frustrates me in a way that few mangaka do.  She's not a complete hack, but it seems that from the very start she was always drowning out the good qualities of her works with too much STUFF.  Full Moon o Sagashite is no exception to this and because of that I can't recommend it.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available.  All 7 have been published and are current in print and available in e-book form.