Manga Friday: Stories for Girls, But Not About Getting Boys
Half by accident, I realized my manga reading this week included four shojo books – for girls – but that none of them were about dating, boys, or relationships. That’s probably not as unlikely as I think it is, but it’s my theme for the week, and I’m running with it. (Think of it as a nod to Alison Bechdel’s Movie Rule.)
Sunshine Sketch, Vol. 1
By Ume Aoki
Yen Press, June 2008, $10.99
Sunshine Sketch is mostly in 4-panel style, though it doesn’t seem to be primarily a gag strip. (Or, at least, if there were supposed to be jokes in each strip, most of them sailed over my head.) The beginning of each section is generally in a more standard page layout, though – and there’s an eight-page color section in the front, for any readers who need to ease into black and white slowly, like a cold pool.
Yuno is a first-year high school student, moving into an apartment complex near her prestigious arts-focused school and quickly becoming friends with her three housemates: Miya, Sae, and Hiro. (And once again I have to wonder – is it really common in Japan for thirteen and fourteen-year-olds to live on their own in apartments when they go to high school? Or is this an accepted fictional trope, something that happens a little bit in life – like a few Americans go to elite boarding schools like Choate – but happens a lot more in fiction?)
Sunshine Sketch is light-hearted and the characters are clearly slightly caricatured, but at heart it’s a realistic depiction of school life, only exaggerated a bit. Yuno is nervous and high-strung, but not in the wacky, knocking-thing-down style of so many manga characters. There’s an emphasis on working hard – like a lot of Japanese culture – and even more on doing good work, on not just working hard but making something worthwhile.
But most of the strips aren’t even about schoolwork – they’re about running out to the convenience store for snacks, or sunbathing, or going to a festival. Sunshine Sketch is best as a slice-of-life look at some smart, talented Japanese high school students, still enthusiastic and optimistic about life. It’s a joy to read stories like that every so often.
Ume Aoki has a fairly standard shojo art style, and is strong at conveying body language and motion in her same-size panels. My only complaint is that sometimes her character’s hair seems to go behind their eyes, which is just weird – you can see one example on the cover.
Walkin’ Butterfly, Vol. 1
By Chihiro Tamaki
Aurora, July 2007, $10.95
You’d have a definite kind of story in mind if I told you that this was about a young woman becoming a model, right? Something heavy on the wish-fulfillment, with lots of gorgeous clothes, everyone in love with the heroine, exotic locations, and probably a gorgeous, devoted guy, too?
Well, Walkin’ Butterfly is thankfully nothing like that.
Michiko is nineteen years old and six feet tall – a surly beanpole who has grown too fast to fit in for her entire life and hates it. She hates herself, too, which the story is a bit too obvious about. But her grumpy, just-this-side-of-nihilistic attitude is great – you can see some of it in the cover, where she seems to be looking straight out and down at the same time.
She’s been the center of attention – mocking attention – for too much of her life, and that in Japan, the land where the nail that sticks up gets hammered down harder than anywhere else. She’s not going anywhere, and not getting anything but angrier. But then a mistake puts her in the middle of a fashion show, among women who actually look like her. She’s quickly found out, and kicked out, but it’s sparked something in her, something that wants to cut through her self-loathing and get her to finally accomplish something.
Walkin’ Butterfly isn’t perfect – Michiko’s narration, in particular, is a bit too pop-psych, and there’s too much hammering on the fact that she’s not happy with her body – but it’s a story that’s actually about a vibrant, individual character and is filled with style and energy.
Kamichama Karin Chu, Vol. 1
Del Rey Manga, June 2008, $10.95
Once upon a time, there was a manga series called Kamichama Karin, about a tween girl who found a magic ring that turned her into a goddess – and who was then caught up in various adventures about that and other, similar rings. I didn’t read that series, but it’s quickly summarized in the first few pages of this sequel.
Karin gets a new ring here, and a new mission: to find the three “noble gods of the Latreia rings.” One of those gods is Kazune, a boy from the first series, whom Karin was married to “long ago” (perhaps in a former life; this isn’t entirely clear) and with whom she’s fated to have a child, Suzune. Suzune also shows up, time-traveling forward to set the plot in motion.
Karin and Kazune are sure the second ring belongs to Jin, a new idol singer, but getting close to him might be a problem – until he turns up at their school. (Japan, if we can judge from manga, is entirely made up of schoolrooms, to which new people – mostly famous ones – transfer in on a weekly basis.)
Things go on from there, in an incredibly over-the-top shojo style – both art and gushingly emotional prose. Kamichama Karin Chu is in large part about relationships, with the convoluted drama of “will he cheat on me in the future once we’re married and have a kid?” to amp up the stakes – but it’s also, confusedly, about the “noble gods” and saving the world, somehow. It’s all very silly, and doesn’t really go beyond being a pleasant story for pre-teen girls. But, for them, it’ll be just fine.
Suihelibe!, Vol. 1
By Naomi Azuma
DC Comics/CMX, October 2008, $9.99
And our only all-ages manga this week is yet another school story, set in a junior high. (And, now that I come to think of it, I have no proof that this is shojo rather than shonen – the main character is a young man, but it’s about saving animals, so I saw it as more “girly” in the manner of Barbie the Veterinarian. This one might well not fit the supposed theme – oh well.)
Tetsu is trying to find a club to join in his middle school, when he stumbles upon a girl who calls herself Lan from the planet Noid, who is on a mission to retrieve lost creatures from her home planet, and enlists his help in secret. They both join the biology club, which has no other members – there’s one person who welcomes Tetsu, but maybe he’s supposed to be the faculty advisor – he doesn’t appear again.
The biology club quickly becomes the cover story for retrieving the Noidish (Noidian? Noidicious?) creatures, aided by an amazing array of Lan’s gadgets. But all is not that easy – the student council wants to shut down the biology club, so they need to get more members to save their existence.
Each story is about retrieving one creature – mostly animal, but also plants and mushrooms – and sending it back to Noid. Tetsu and Lan are also recruiting new members of the club as they can – they have a deadline of three months to get five new members or the club will be shut down.
Suihelibe! is another silly story, but it’s lighter and cuter than Kamichama Karin Chu to begin with – it doesn’t try to be something other than a fun story for middle-school kids who like a little bit of adventure and thinking about saving animals. And that’s just fine.
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 antickmusings.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.