Manga Friday: The Dregs
Manga Friday took a little holiday for the last couple of weeks, and it may take more holidays in the weeks to come. Looking back on my recent columns, I’ve said an awful lot of “and here’s the next volume in a series I’ve reviewed four times” and “this week’s books have nothing in common” – and neither of those are quite what I’d hoped. I think I’m reviewing too many of the same manga, too often, so I expect to cut back on Manga Friday substantially in 2009, unless I start seeing more different things.
I expect to keep reviewing stuff here on Fridays, but there may be somewhat less of the specifically Japanese/Korean stuff for a while. (Or possibly not – whenever I try to predict something like this, I’m usually wrong.) But I’ll save the name “Manga Friday” for when I’m looking at books that would be called manga by that legal construct, the “reasonable man.”
So, for this week, I have three books, arranged in ascending order of volume number:
The Manzai Comics
Story by Atsuko Asano; Art by Hizuru Imai
Aurora, January 2009, $10.95
This opens with an odd hint of yaoi, as large, athletic, energetic, popular student Takashi Akimoto begs small, weak, timid (generic manga hero Type 1) Ayumu Seta to “please go out with me” and “do it with me.” Takashi actually wants to form a manzai comedy team with Ayumu, but he’s either too dim or too focused on himself to actually say that for several pages.
(Apparently – I have no personal knowledge of this, but several references agree – the dominant form of comedy in Japan is manzai, two-person acts, rather than sketch comedy or stand-up or improv. Think Abbot & Costello or Crosby & Hope.)
Ayumu is not just an ordinary shy boy – well, he’s a manga hero, so you know there’s got to be some horribly dramatic thing in his past – he considers himself responsible for the car-crash death of his father and older sister because he was clinically depressed (and completely untreated as well). So he has the standard “I just want to be normal” complex of the dweeby manga hero in spades.
But Takashi is a force of nature; he sweeps Auymu’s mopey passive-aggression ahead of him and soon they are pseudo-best friends and working on a routine. Now the school festival looms, when every class competes by putting on the exact same play. (If I haven’t said recently that Japan has a deeply weird culture, consider it said now.) The play is Romeo & Juliet. And Takashi has a brainstorm: stage it as a manzai, with himself and Ayumu as the leads!
Since Takashi is so well-liked – and, possibly, because it’s such a crazy idea that no other class will do anything remotely similar – the class goes along with it. Now, I’m no expert at comedy, but it seems to me that the first rule of drag is: the less likely and believable a man is in women’s clothing, the funnier he is. Ayumu, being thin and doe-eyed and gorgeous, just looks like a pretty girl dressed up as Juliet. Takashi, on the other hand, would have been hilarious as Juliet…but the story is more interested in playing peek-a-boo with yaoi tropes and running through the same old anxieties, so that’s never an option.
By the end of the book, the play goes on, despite flak from the school administration – who are not fond of this unserious manzai nonsense – and the usual array of other problems. And does it go well? You’d have to read the book to find out….
The Manzai Comics is funny and mostly moves quickly. But that can’t hide how deeply generic it is. It’s pleasant comfort reading, but nothing more than that.
Hitohira, Vol. 2
By Idumi Kirihara
Aurora, December 2008, $10.95
Hitohira has a plot not a million miles away from Manzai’s: Mugi Asai is the girl version of Ayumu, shy as a mouse (and you haven’t seen shy until you’ve seen Japanese manga-girl shy) and semi-accidentally dragged into her school’s rag-tag second-rung drama club (quite literally: the school has a real, well-funded drama club, and then the cheap small one Mugi joins).
Look, I reviewed the first volume some time ago for this column – just go read that for the backstory and come back. I’ll wait.
Everybody done? Good; I’ll move on.
In this volume, it’s summer, and the whole club – all five of them – are at a cabin by the sea for their boot camp. (Japanese culture, as usual, despises time spent in lazy pursuits – one must be active and working oneself to death at all times.) They’re at the camp to prepare their new play, Hitohira. And Mugi will play the lead.
Oh no she won’t! Much histrionics follows, with nearly as many slamming doors as a French farce. Everyone pouts for different reasons for about a hundred pages until Mugi caves – and we all knew she was going to from the first page, so we were just waiting her out – and the plot continues.
And then the last section sees the girls dressed up as sexy maids and witches for purposes that I suspect don’t have all that much to do with the plot.
Hitohira is even more generic than Manzai; it’s pleasant, but the “oh I’m just a shy little waif of a thing; I couldn’t possibly ever do anything ever in my meek little life” act of the manga heroine is bugging me more and more every time I see it. I just want to grab these girl-kittens by the scruff of their necks and shake them until they develop backbones.
(No, it probably wouldn’t work. I know that. But I still want to.)
Croquis Pop, Vol. 3
Story by KwangHyun Seo; Art by JinHo Ko
Yen Press, January 2009, $10.99
Recall, if you will, that Da-Il, our perky and self-confident (for insufficient reasons – Manga Hero Type 4) would-be manwha-ga, also has vast and untutored powers related to his artistic abilities, which he’ll need to use to enter “dead zones” and defeat “grudges” to save the world or whatever.
This volume sees the plot recomplicate, as several minor characters are given a chance to scheme and wring their hands in Republic-serial-villain glee as their plots come closer to fruition. Mu-Huk, who is something like Da-Il’s spirit guide – his first one; he got a new perky-girl version based on a stuffed animal in the second volume – comes back from being destroyed or limbo or whatever, as well.
The big fight from the second book finishes up in this one, and then there’s a smaller-scale dead-zone story, which also ends in this book. On the other hand, there are all of those obvious subplots running their engines outside, daring us to wonder what will come of them. (The effect is not unlike mid-period Claremont X-Men, with balls going up into the air every three or four pages, and so sign of most of them coming down any time soon.)
Croquis Pop is still attractive and stylish, but I don’t know if I really care about these people all that much. I do like looking at this comic, but this one ends on a very easy spot to just stop reading.
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 should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.