Friday, April 24, 2015


Of course, for every notable or enjoyable school-related manga, there are plenty of others that can only rise to middling at best, ones that tend to fall through the cracks of memory and time.  Today's review is just one example of this seemingly endless pile of titles.

MONKEY HIGH! (Saruyama!), by Shouko Arika.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.


Haruna Aizawa isn't happy about the fact that she had to switch schools.  Her politician father got caught up in a scandal, and to help her family save face she's had to switch from her high-class private school to a rowdy public high school.  She likens her new classmates to a bunch of rowdy monkeys, with the rowdiest of them all being the boy everyone calls Macharu.  He's short, childish, full of energy, and endlessly optimistic, and Haruna finds his optimism irritating.  Soon enough, though, Macharu manages to work his way into her heart, and Haruna starts to realize that she may be falling for goofy little Macharu.


Aside from the metaphor that gives this series its name, there is nothing that is the least bit remarkable about Monkey High!.  Everything you've seen here has been done before, from the leading couple to the chapter plotlines to the reluctant romance they enter into, and countless shoujo series have done them better or in a more interesting manner.

Haruna is meant to be a defrosting ice queen, but she's far too bland of a character to make much of an impression on reader before or after she falls for Macharu.  Worse still, she always seems to be retreating from the plot instead of engaging in it.  Whenever people from her new school try to get her involved in school activities or people from her old school try to get back into touch, she does her best to get away or alienate herself from them.  It's a weirdly passive move on her part, and it never feels like the natural choice of a conflicted high school girl.  Macharu is a little more fleshed out in comparison, but that's still not saying much.  He's certainly more engaging than Haruna, but his perceived immaturity makes the idea of him being in a romantic relationship feel kind of weird.  The story loves to milk the fact that he's short and boyish, which makes him less than ideal as boyfriend material.  Still, at least he's got something you might call a personality.  That's more than his classmates get, as they are mostly relegated to the role of Greek chorus, there either to fuel conflict or support Haruna and Macharu's burgeoning relationship.  The same goes for Atsu, Macharu's flirty best friend or the seemingly endless line of rich guys from Haruna's old school.  They show up just long enough to tease the possibility of breaking up our leads until they reaffirm the status quo. 

The plot itself is just a grab-bag of standard schoolroom and romantic scenarios.  As such, we get just as many 'let's put on a play for the school festival!' or 'let's go on a field trip!' moments as we do 'why is my heart beating so fast?' leading up to the all important kiss.  I guess I can give Akira the benefit of not dragging out the romance for volumes at a time, as Haruna and Macharu become a couple only midway through the volume.  The problem is that Akira clearly had no plan as how to maintain any sense of drama or tension after that, so she just keeps throwing other, taller, more conventionally handsome guys in Haruna's path in a futile attempt to get her to stray.  Of course, she never considers it for a minute, so all of this ends up being rather pointless.

Monkey High! is a manga that's deeply lacking in any sense of identity.  Its only distinguishing feature is Macharu, and even then there are plenty of shoujo manga out there about short guys in relationships like Lovely Complex.  Otherwise Akira just seems to be doing little more than a half-assed retread of a lot of tired old shoujo set-ups and character types.


The story is far from the only thing that feels generic here.  Akira's artwork could easily be confused with that of dozens of other B- and C-list shoujo titles, full of generically cute teenagers.  Again, the only one that stands out is Macharu.  She does manage to make him look both like a big goofy kid and like a monkey, but even then he looks a bit like someone put One Piece's Monkey D. Luffy through a shoujo filter.  She uses all these mostly mundane characters to fill up space in her rather crowded panels, which in turn are packed on the page and augmented with a bit of screentone.  Overall, it's all perfectly competent in technique, but Akira brings nothing new or interesting to her art.


Monkey High! is an empty trifle of manga.  It's not incompetent by any means, but neither does it strive to do anything interesting with itself.  It's too boring to be offensive, but that means it's all too boring to stick in anyone's mind once they put the first volume down.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan, with 8 volumes available.  All 8 volumes have been published and are currently in print.

Saturday, April 18, 2015


Of course, there are just as many teacher-related manga as there are school-related manga, and more than a fair share of them involve student-teacher relationships.  Today's selection is considered by some to be a classic, but does it hold up after all these years?

ONEGAI TEACHER! (Onegai Ticha!), by Please! & Shizuru Hayashiya.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2005.


Kei Kusanagi feels as if his whole life is stagnating.  He feels removed from his classmates thanks to an ongoing heart problem, a lack of libido, and a keen interest in UFOs.  One night he happens to not only discover a UFO, but a beautiful redhead who emerges from the ship before disappearing into the night.  He would have been willing to write this off as a dream until that same redhead becomes both his new neighbor and his new homeroom teacher.

He discovers that the woman, Mizuho, is an intergalactic observer sent to study Earth and she can't afford to have her job compromised or her identity revealed by Kei.  They decide that the best way to help her is for the two to marry.  Kei's has a hard enough time keeping his and Mizuho's secrets away from nosy family members and classmates with crushes, but he could have never anticipated that the growing affection between him and Mizuho might be the biggest complication of them all.


Well, I'll be damned.  I've never been someone who was all that keen on the magical girlfriend concept, as the worse ones tend to be rampantly sexist and intellectually insulting and even the better examples feature relationships that feel more like mother and child than two young lovers.  Yet I was struck time and again by how genuinely readable and enjoyable Onegai Teacher was.  It might just be one of the better examples of the magical girlfriend to be found on the manga market.

It helps a lot that Kei is rather down to earth when compared to many other characters in similar places.  He's a very mellow, even contemplative kid for his age.  His lack of libido means that he's not the panty-chasing nose-bleeder that so often pops up in these sorts of stories, and he possesses enough social grace to be able to talk to girls without having a nervous breakdown (even if he remains utterly oblivious to their advances).  Mind you, the writers make up for his mellowness by having Kei's uncle and friends supply the loud, girl-crazy perviness, but it's easier to overlook it when it's coming from the supporting cast instead of the lead.

It also helps that Mizuho is also fairly well-rounded herself, and not just because she's a conveniently humanoid and conventionally attractive woman.  She's no bubble-headed ditz, mewling sex kitten, or substitute mother.  Instead she is gracious and professional on the job, and at home her gentleness is tempered with a feeling of believable awkwardness around her newfound spouse.  These two barely knew each other before being taken to the alter, so their awkwardness around one another is understandable and relatable, and the story is more than content to let their relationship build in a slow, gentle manner.

That's not to say that the story is perfect.  It does end up utilizing some of the same old tropes you've seen before.  There are plenty of suggestively staged mix-ups and misunderstandings to create drama, there's an overprotective little sister whose only gag is to beat up Kei as often as possible, and there's even a cutesy little critter that turns into a spaceship that almost certainly is there because Tenchi Muyo did it first.  Still, there's a heart and soul here that one rarely gets from magical girlfriend stories, and the fact that it's a TV-to-manga adaptation makes it all the more marvelous.  So often the emphasis is on broad humor punctuated with a lot of jiggle and bounce, but here the emphasis is establishing a proper romance and the story greatly benefits from that.


Shiyahiyo did have the advantage of not having to come up with the characters wholesale, but as a whole he makes them all look great.  He doesn't mess too much with the original character designs for the sake of sensation, which means that the curves on the ladies remain grounded in reality and fanservice is all but nonexistent.  He instead saves his exaggeration for the humorous bits, but even then he doesn't stretch things too far.  Really, everything here is fairly minimal, from the backgrounds to the angles to the composition, but it's all good and solidly drawn and it does a good job translating the show into written form.


This is a magical girlfriend series who prefers them more in the line of Oh My Goddess than Chobits.  It translates a sensational premise into a surprisingly down-to-earth and engaging romance that holds up to the ages and even now is well worth seeking.

This series was published by ComicsOne.  This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes.  Both volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.


Thursday, April 9, 2015


While there are plenty of comedy manga out there in the world, few of them could be accurately described as a farce, and fewer still could consider themselves as successful at it as today's selection.

SCHOOL RUMBLE (Sukuru Ranburu), by Jin Kobayashi.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2006.


Tenma Tsukamoto is in love with her classmate Karasuma Oji, and in turn class delinquent Kenji Harmia is in love with Tenma.  This love triangle is the heart of an ever-growing web of friends and classmates who find themselves caught in the crossfire of Tenma's and Harima's never-ending and increasingly wacky attempts to win over their respective objet d'amour


Comedy is a lot harder to pull off than people think it is.  Anyone can spout random silly phrases or overreact to the nonsensical things around them, but can steadily produce a series of good gags that work beginning to end that can appeal to a wide audience.  This is doubly true for farce, since farce is not only purposefully over-the-top, but often features multiple plot threads happening simultaneously, and it takes keen writing to keep things straight and keep it from all becoming obnoxious.  This is triply true for comedy manga, since on top of all these issues, they have to work with only still black-and-white images for their delivery.  When you take all of that into consideration, it just makes the fact that School Rumble is so consistently and endearingly funny all that much more of a marvelous feat.

So what is it precisely that makes School Rumble so amusing?  Well, it helps that Kobayashi is a skilled enough writer to pull off a farce.  Every chapter builds itself upon a single, simple concept - either Tenma is trying to get Karauama's attention or Harima is trying to get Tenma's attention.  The details may change depending on time and setting, but that single concept ends up becoming the core to an ever-growing snowball of hilariously bad ideas that one (or both) undertake, building up to the punch-line.  It's a simple structure to build a joke upon, but the variety and sheer wackiness of each chapter keeps that joke from ever getting stale. 

It also helps that even as Tenma and Harima make utter fools of themselves, it's clear that Kobayashi harbors great affection for them both.  In a profile at the end of the volume, Kobayashi outright admits that Harima is his favorite character, and it's easy to see why.  Harima is the kind of shonen protagonist who not only gets to indulge in uber-manly street punk stuff, but also gets to be a big goof all in the name of trying to impress a girl, making him both an inspiration and relatable to the young male audience.  Still, he doesn't get half the page time that Tenma does, and he also put some care into her as well.  It would have been all too easy to make her a simple ditz and leave the joke at that.  What makes the difference is that her youthful ignorance is rounded out with loads of energy and a quick and active imagination, as well as getting to see her in more casual settings with her sister Yakumo and her school friends.  He also tends to alternate the focus between the two from chapter to chapter, which keeps the balance fair and stories varied.

School Rumble is one of those comedies that focuses more on the characters than the plot.  The Tenma-Karasuma-Harima love triangle is the closest thing this manga has to a proper ongoing plot, but it's also far from the only story going on here.  With every chapter, the cast expands a little more, and many of them have their own stories or romantic entanglements to deal with.  Kobayashi is even willing to pull the narrative breaks a little by writing a chapter or two from Yakumo's perspective.  Her stories are a bit of an odd fit even for a series as silly as this.  It's not because they tend to be more serious and introspective, but because they bring in a supernatural element by giving Yakumo the ability to hear the thoughts of those who love her.  Considering that she is both pretty and popular, you can imagine just how many mental come-ons she overhears.  It's not a bad idea on its own, but when plopped into the middle of this wacky comedy it just feels odd and tonally it feels out of place.

Comedy in manga is a hard thing to do well, but School Rumble makes it look positively effortless.  Kobayashi knows just how to build up a cast of endearing yet hilarious characters and how to turn the romantic equivalent of a Tom and Jerry cartoon into a never-ending stream of genuinely good gags.  It's an act of manga alchemy that's a delight to read and that few can hope to replicate.


One advantage of comedy manga is that it's usually less dependent on good artwork than most.  So long as the story is easy to follow and the characters are reasonably attractive, most people will be satisfied.  Kobayashi certainly achieves that and much more.  The characters are clean and simple, yet distinct and very expressive - a necessity for a manga with a cast as large as this one has.  I suspect Kobayashi is a fan of Ken Akamatsu, as Tenma's signature twin pigtails twitch and move in a manner similar to Akamatsu's hair attennae).  He definitely makes his preference for Harima apparent in the art, as he clearly savors every opportunity he gets to draw this dramatic, heavily hatched scenes of Harima riding around on his motorcycle or getting into fights. Indeed, he seems to love any opportunity he can get to mess with the angles or the lighting to highlight mood shifts or a shift to a character's inner monologue.  At the same time, he also clearly loves drawing all the goofy, over-the-top, or superdeformed reactions that the cast indulges in so often.  If anything suffers in comparison, it's the backgrounds.  They're not common, and what is there are your standard homerooms and interiors, but it hardly matters when the rest of it is so strong.

It's a shame that this was one of the many series that was dropped during the Del Ray-Kodansha transfer, as School Rumble is one of the few comedy manga that's genuinely funny and remains so even today.  While it will sadly never be completed, it's still worth seeking out.

This series was published by Del Ray.  This series is complete in Japan with 22 volumes available.  16 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Here in the US, April doesn't mean much to schoolkids beyond the prospect of a long weekend off for Easter and preparations for their finals and term papers.  In Japan, though, April marks the beginning of the new school year, and to celebrate this I'll be looking at a number of school-related titles this month.  To start things off, we'll look at a manga about a school that truly could only exist in manga.

VOICE OVER! SEIYU ACADEMY (Seiyu ka-!), by Maki Minami.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2013.


Hime Kino has a dream to become a great voice actress so that she can perform a cutesy magical girl on her favorite show, Lovely Blazers.  She works her way into the prestigious Holly Academy and its celebrated voice actor classes, but she's stuck with the class losers because of her lack of skill and her weirdly gravelly voice.  Hime gets her chance when a radio drama assignment reveals her gift for believable male voices, impressing even her snobby classmate Senri, but she's determined to succeed on her own terms.  Just because she can't do a cute girly voice doesn't mean that she'll let dickish casting agents, scheming class idols, or even her own friends' distress get in the way of her dreams.


Voice Over! Seiyu Academy is so earnest about itself that it verges upon the ridiculous.  That onto itself is not a bad thing, but the real problem is that same earnestness clashes with the artificial drama on its pages, the stubbornness of its heroine, and the oddly off-kilter romantic elements.

I'll give Hime this much: she's got spunk.  She never lets the mockery of others bring her down, and she shows both a willingness to fight back and the occasional bout of cleverness.  These are good qualities, ones that I wish more shoujo ingénues would possess.  She also has some very believable and frustrating faults, though.  She's both stubborn and short-sighted when it comes to her personal goals, and it's clear from early on that these qualities are there more to stretch out the story than to round out Hime as a personality.  Even as the universe continues to club her over the head with the fact that she's both an awkward, self-conscious actress and that her voice is better suited to handsome boys than squeaky girls, she keeps going on as to how this time she'll find the way to make her voice more stereotypically feminine.  She nearly throws away a good debut role as a supporting male character because it doesn't fit her very specific dream.  After a while, you have to wonder why Hime is fighting this hard to make herself fit a role she's not qualified to hold when she has such an unique talent of her own.  By the end of the volume, Hime's determination starts to look less like an inspiration and more like self-delusion, and it undercuts those qualities that might have made more more of an inspiration to readers.

Of course, it was always going to be hard for Hime because Minami decided that nearly every guy present is determined to either mess with Hime's head for their own purposes or act like a dick for the sake of being a dick.  What's really weird is that there are so many guys in orbit around her that this manga starts to resemble a reverse harem, yet Hime herself has a complete disinterest in guys and dating.  First and foremost amongst her proto-harem is Senri, who is the sort of dark-haired, moody bad-boy sort that always seem to pop up in shoujo manga.  Still, I did appreciate that his moodiness is a cover for him being a lonely crazy cat guy, with hordes oaf adopted cats in his home.  Weirder still, he starts to care for Hime mostly because she reminds him of a particular cat of his.  While that's a rather weird set-up for a potential romance, it's so weird that it becomes hilarious.  Then there's the pair of popular boys who seem to be here more for fujoshi appeal than anything else.  Why else would one be so obsessed with keeping the other 'pure' by keeping him away from girls?  Worse still, the protected one gets rejected by Hime, but he simply views that as a challenge to win her.  Then there are all the dickish casting agents and other professionals who simply laugh at her.  It seems like the only guys who don't act like utter assholes towards Hime are her fellow class rejects, and the only things we know about them are 'violent thug' and 'vaguely French dork.'  Maybe it wouldn't mind the reverse harem angle so much if Hime had anything resembling a good choice to pick from.

Maybe if you're the sort of person who can accept the idea of a high school dedicated entirely to voice acting, you might be more willing to accept a heroine with spirit but no perspective surrounded by a lot of forced drama and creepy dudes.  Sadly, I am just not that sort of person.


Sadly, this series turned me off from the first page because of its art style.  Minami's art is far too cutesy for my taste, and it comes off as tacky.  The characters are dominated by their flat looks, huge dark eyes, and the fact that regardless of style, EVERYONE'S hair is constantly in their eyes.  It's weird that the human characters look like that when Minami can draw such lovely, photorealistic cats.  That's far from the only problem with this manga, though.  No, the bigger problem is that Minami is determined to fill every inch of every panel with STUFF.  It doesn't matter whether it's full of background, gaudy screen tones, or giant close-ups, she is determined to leave no space blank.  This also extends to the page composition, as she's the sort who tries to cram in as many panels as possible on the page.  About the only visual choice that works for me is Viz's creative choice of fonts.  It helps communicate the notion of a voice sounding good or bad in a medium where sound is simply not possible, and it goes a long way towards selling the reader on the students' vocal talents.  It's just not enough to completely change my opinion on the art, though.

Hime may be more spirited than your average shoujo heroine, but spirit alone isn't enough to overcome the fact that the author won't let her act rationally, give her some romantic options that aren't creepy or weird, or draw her in a manner that isn't gaudy.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 12 volumes available.  10 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print.

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