Of course, I can't let an Old School Month pass without some old shoujo, and there's no better source for mostly forgotten 90s shoujo than good ol' CMX. Alas, they can't all be gems like Swan and Eroica; most of them are middling dramas like today's offering.
TOWER OF THE FUTURE (Mirai no Utena), by Saki Hiwatari. First published in 1994 and first published in North America in 2005.
Takeru's life was for a while not all that different from that of any other 14 year old boy. He's struggling with his choice of high school and a newfound crush and his desire to be a fantasy novelist often leaves him lost in his own imagination. That all changes the day Takeru's mother dies and reveals that Takeru has an illegitimate half-sister in England. This revelation shocks Takeru to his core and his reactions threaten to tear apart what is left of his family.
I don't know why CMX classified this series as a fantasy. While Takeru's half-baked D&D fantasies do appear early on, the story is mostly a soapy melodrama that will test the reader's tolerance for teenage hissy-fits.
While it's not unheard of to have a male lead in a shoujo series, it is unusual to see one that is portrayed as so emotional. It's not only far more true to real-life than most teen boys in shoujo comics, but it's nice to see that he isn't shamed for expressing them. On the flip side, this also means that Takeru can get downright tedious at times when those same strong emotions lead him to make some very childish, selfish decisions. For most of the book, I wanted the adults in his life to stop indulging his grief-fueled tantrums and to start exercising some control and parental authority. Otherwise I fear that Takeru will become downright insufferable for the rest of the series.
I have to wonder if Hiwatari planned on killing Takeru's mother from the start considering she set up all sorts of story hooks early on that are mostly dropped after that point. The most obvious one is Takeru's dreams of writing and his many flights of fancy. Honestly I was kind of glad these were dropped considering that the Great Work he was writing was from all appearances nothing more than your bog-standard generic fantasy work. Again, it's realistic that a teenage boy's writings would be mediocre at best, but at times those early chapters seemed to be taken up more with his imagination than the actual story.
Others aren't picked back up at all until the very end, such as Takeru's crush on a random girl. The one that doesn't get dropped is the strangest of all. All throughout this volume, there's a bizarrely well-spoken little boy who hangs around Takeru's house and ends up becoming something of a confidant. Why does this happen? Who is this little boy? What does he have to do with anything? I don't know, as Hiwatari never drops so much as a hint! That's not even getting into the brief glimpse we see of Takeru's long-lost half-sister, who by all appearances will be bringing her own share of melodrama with her. This lack of narrative focus combined with Takeru's sympathetic yet frustrating choices are what really hold back Tower of the Future from becoming something truly worthwhile.
While Hiwatari's art is nothing special compared to other shoujo artists of the time, I can't help but feel a little nostalgic about the artwork here. I know that technically her character designs are generic, although their bodies are a lot more sturdy than the usual, spindly sorts that tend to be found at this time. I know that her faces tend to be a bit stiff, although the way she slightly squares off the character's eyes helps to keep them from being obnoxiously cute. I know that her paneling is all over the place and she rarely bothers with backgrounds and that frankly it's all pretty mediocre and yet I can't entirely hate it. There's just something about the shoujo aesthetic of the 90s that just speaks to me on a personal level.
Tower of the Future is nothing special to look at and narratively is kind of a mess, but it's the sort of emotion-fueled melodrama that occasionally manages to find some emotional truth. If it tones down Takeru's mood swings in later volumesand sticks with him learning to process his grief and the truth about his family, it might manage to turn itself into something special. As it is, it's not quite strong enough to recommend to anyone outside of old-school shoujo junkies.
This series was published by CMX. This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes available. All 11 were published and are currently out of print.