Manga Friday: Romance Is in the Air
Manga Friday continues to go backwards and forwards at the same time; this week, I read the first volumes of two very popular and long-running series, and the latest volume of Path of the Assassin, a lesser-known samurai series from the creators of Lone Wolf & Cub. Our theme this week is young love…but this is manga, so we’re talking about lots of panty-shots, blood spewing out of noses, gigantic sweat-drops, tasteful nudity, and utterly gormless young men. So let’s dive right in:
Ai Yori Aoshi, I’m informed by its foreword, is a romance comic for young men. (They don’t put it quite that way, of course, but that’s what it is. And it shows just how big the Japanese marketplace for comics is when even the odd niche of a love story in a boy’s magazine is filled.) Kaoru, a young student, ran away from his terribly rich, terribly powerful, terribly conservative, and terribly controlling family some years ago, and is now in college. Aoi, his incredibly sheltered childhood sweetheart – who is the scion of a similar family, and who was betrothed to him at a very young age – runs away to find him, since she’s utterly in love with this man she hasn’t seen in a decade (or at all as an adult). They meet cute, she goes home with him – not like that, get your minds out of the gutter – and then the engine of plot complication starts to chug along.
Kou Fumizuki, who created this series, does make Aoi believable, which is not an easy achievement – she’s confused about nearly everything to do with Kaoru and modern life, and that’s the main driving factor of the plot. Kaoru is more generic, the usual audience-identification character (smart enough but not too smart, hardworking ditto, and so on), but he works, and centers the story reasonably well. I suspect that over-controlling rich families and arranged marriages are mostly things a generation or two in the past for the Japanese public, which makes them fodder for melodrama and comedy. (If they were still living institutions, stories about them would be drama.)
I have a hard time believing this series, though, which might be because I really don’t understand Japanese society. Sure, Aoi is cute, and Kaoru did have a crush on her when he was young, but…that was a long time ago. It’s one thing to obsess about someone you knew in high school or college (after puberty, which is the important point), but it feels very different for that obsession to focus on someone you only knew in a pre-sexual time. And the upcoming machinations of the Eeeevil families felt to me like something out of Strangers in Paradise (which I stopped reading when it started being about how there’s an international criminal conspiracy that controls nearly everything and is mostly devoted to keeping two women from getting together).
Anyway, a lot of people like Ai Yori Aoshi better than I did. I think most of those people have a significant anatomical difference from me, if that makes any difference. But I probably won’t bother tracking down the second volume.
Love Hina is another very popular series, which I suspect (without knowing) also originally appeared in a Japanese publication for young men. (C’mon – it’s about a slacker college-age guy who ends up living in a women’s hotel with five attractive young women, so who do you think the target audience was?) Said slacker, Keitaro, has failed his college entrance examinations for the second year straight, and consequently been kicked out by his parents. He thinks his grandmother runs a small hotel on the outskirts of Tokyo, and so goes there to mooch off of her for a while.
However, grandma is off on an around-the-world sightseeing trip, and his (attractive, young) aunt has turned the hotel into a residential apartment building for high school girls. (Is there much need for such things in Japan? Do people go to high school so far away from home that they live alone in apartments at the age of twelve? I’m not sure whether to take this as an exaggeration for comic effect – so that all of the girls are younger than Keitaro, and thus potential sex partners – or a reflection of what really happens in Japan. It’s certainly a good set-up for a sex comedy, which is what really matters.)
Lots of slapstick ensues, of a rather bawdy kind – everybody sees everybody else naked, some more than once, to put it in a nutshell – due to Keitaro’s requisite clumsiness. The slapstick is inventive and generally funny, even though my eye still finds it hard to follow action “backwards” in manga. Keitaro, like Ai’s Kaoru, is a bit of a caricature – a serviceable one, but clearly a burlesque of the way a large segment of the target audience views themselves. (And put into a situation that said audience can only dream about.)
There’s again a “young love prevails” angle; Keitaro swore to a girl at an amazingly young age that the two of them would meet again at Tokyo U. and there get married so that they can be together forever. He’s forgotten who that girl is and what she looks like, but still wants to keep his end of the bargain (and doesn’t seem to realize how silly and quixotic that is). The girl is almost certainly one of the five living in the hotel, of course.
I wish Keitaro wasn’t quite such a monumental nebbish (Love Hina is essentially Three’s Company, with more company, more pratfalls, and actual female nudity), but I might keep reading Love Hina. And I’ll claim that it’s because of the slapstick and not because of the nudity…but you folks can probably see right through that.
Path of the Assassin isn’t a love story in any central way, but the first story in Vol. 7 (the new one at hand this month) does see Ieyasu, the warlord central character who will one day be Shogun of all Japan, fall for a serving woman and very nicely fall into an affair with her. (He does have a definite knack for scheming, but that’s not what he uses in this case; he goes out of his way to make sure she’s as interested as he is.) Ieyasu is married, which makes the story somewhat less romantic.
But wait! Ieyasu’s advisor/ninja bodyguard Hanzo has married the woman he loves, and she gets pregnant over the course of this volume. Surely that’s romantic, right? (Well, maybe not, given the question Hanzo asks about said pregnancy.)
Other than that, Vol. 7 contains less fighting than earlier volumes – we’re in the lull between wars at this point – though there is some behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and quite a bit of family drama. (Ieyasu’s son is a bit too brilliant, and his wife is turning into a Lady Macbeth with no one to influence, now that she’s separated from her family, home, and society.) And, for those looking for such things, there’s quite a bit of (female) nudity. It probably won’t make much sense to anyone coming in cold – I struggle with remembering who all of the secondary characters are myself, and I’ve read all of it – but it’s a fine, long historical novel in comics form, and I’d recommend the series for anyone looking for a historical story with some depth and nuance who can tolerate a certain level of blood and tits (or, possibly, vice versa).
Ai Yori Aoshi, Vol. 1
Tokyopop, 1998, $9.99
Love Hina, Vol. 1
Tokyopop, 2002, $9.95
Path of the Assassin, Vol. 7
Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Dark Horse Manga, 2007, $9.95
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at anticmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.