Manga Friday: Schoolgirls in Trouble
Well, I’m back, he said.
(A shiny dime to the first person to identify that line.)
“Manga Friday” has been on hiatus for a while, but it roars back into the arena, all mixed-metaphorical engines racing, with four new books set in that most hallowed of all Japanese story settings: the all-girls high school. Oh, sure – one of these books is set in a school that just recently let a small number of boys in, and another features a school that probably has some boys – but all of these books know that it’s the girls, with their little sailor outfits and ridiculously short skirts, that draws in the readers. (Apparently both boys and girls, as far as I can tell.) So, without further ado…
Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking, Vol. 1
By Koji Kumeta
Del Rey Manga, February 2009, $10.99
We begin with a parody, to ease ourselves into the goofy insanity of the real thing. Nozomu Itoshiki is an influential teacher at an all-girls school (told you!) – unfortunately, he’s not exactly influential in a good way, since he’s deeply suicidal. The requisite super-positive girl, Kafuka Fura, finds him hanging (the by-a-noose kind of hanging) in a cherry-blossom grove, and breaks his rope by grabbing onto his legs. That leads to the first iteration of Itoshiki’s catchprase – “What if I had died?!” – which is an incredibly awesome thing to say to someone who just saved your life, and which Itoshiki gets to say several times in the course of this book.
But, since he isn’t dead, Itoshiki has to go to school, where he spreads depression and sadness to his students – or he would, if they weren’t all each completely nuts in their own ways. Besides the super-positive girl, there’s one who never wants to leave her room (a Hikikomori – it’s common enough in Japan to have its own name), a stalker, one girl who always comes to school with new bruises and injuries, the requisite super-sexy girl who’s just returned from living overseas, a compulsive trash-texter, and so on.
No actual teaching or learning goes on in Itoshiki’s class, as usual for a school manga. But, luckily, no one yells at the top of their lungs that they’re going to do their best, either – Itoshiki certainly isn’t, and the students have their own problems to deal with.
Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is wickedly funny, with a dark sensibility and the willingness of the best humor to go wherever the joke leads it. There’s an extensive set of notes in the back to explain the more esoteric Japanese references, but the black humor is central enough for any reader to appreciate it. Kumeta also has a very high-contrast art style, all thin lines of uniform width enclosing huge expanses of white or black, with very little tone or gray – it’s art that calls attention to its own blackness, and thus to the same qualities in the story. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and I recommend it highly, even to people who don’t typically read manga.
Gakuen Prince, Vol. 1
By Jun Yuzuki
Del Rey Manga, March 2009, $10.99
Gakuen Prince is on the surface a more conventional story, but it takes those conventions and turns up the volume until the windows rattle and the shingles start to vibrate off the roof. You see, Joshi High is one of those ultra-elite schools so common in manga, ruled by the frankly aristocratic S-class. And it also was all-girls until very recently, when a very few boys were allowed in.
So – a few boys, who all will be dreamily pretty, and a pack of girls drooling over them. So far, so obvious, right? Except Gakuen Prince is also a demented shojo version of a harem manga, and the boys are essentially forced to be the girls’ sex-slaves. They can pick one girl – and, if so, they’d better both be utterly faithful and protect that girl from the inventively nasty behavior of the other girls – or they can be passed around, or they can play the field on their own.
As an older, wiser character explains to new boy Mizutani (he’s the one on the cover), “In here, your manly strength doesn’t apply. Now you’ll be completely isolated from the world. You’ll go nowhere but school and home. And these girls’ sexual frustration is at a fever pitch. We’re surrounded by a pack of females in heat. We’re completely powerless. That leaves us with very few choices if we want to survive.”
Yes, he does all but say “You’re going to get raped, so just try to enjoy it.” It’s a sly inversion, and that overwhelming threat of female sexuality drives the whole plot.
Mizutani, grasping at straws, declares nearly at random that Rise Okitsu – the requisite incredibly mousy girl who is introduced running to school and thinking “Everyone will notice me! I don’t want to stand out! No way!” – is his girlfriend, thinking that will make things better.
It doesn’t, of course, but this isn’t really his story to begin with – it’s a shojo story, for girls, so it’s about Okitsu. And things go rapidly over the top: this is yet another manga highschool where everything but work gets done, and teachers are hardly ever seen. The energy in Gakuen Prince is the sexual frustration of teenage girls, which comes up very rarely in the West, so I found that refreshing. But it’s also deeply conventional, like so much manga is – the emotions and conflicts are very clichéd, if the specific situations are blown utterly out of proportion and reality. So this is fun, and could be the catalyst for some interesting thoughts, but it’s only of moderate interest in itself.
Oninagi, Vol. 1
By Akira Ishida
Yen Press, April 2009, $10.99
Speaking of the deeply conventional, here we have “average schoolgirl Nanami,” who’s thrilled to be starting high school, where she expects to see a lot more of her crush Sanjouin. Unfortunately, on her way to school on the first day, she’s confronted by Tomotaka Onigoroshi, a teenager slayer who is convinced that Nanami is a demon.
Nanami’s past turns out to be more complicated than she knew, and her potential powers much more impressive. And another slayer – you can probably guess who – turns up very quickly as well.
So Oninagi feints towards the schoolgirl crush story, only to dive headlong into demon-battling territory. And, by the end of this book, several other major players have popped up as well – I expect subsequent volumes will get heavily into the magical/physical combat. It’s pleasant and moves quickly, but it’s pretty generic, and the art is scratchy and often poorly framed. This is really for those who can’t get enough manga fighting, particularly involving cute girls in sailor-like school uniforms.
Negima!? Neo: Magister Negi Magi, Vol. 1
Story by Ken Akamatsu; Art by Takuya Fujima
Del Rey Manga, March 2009, $10.99
OK. If I have this right, first Akamatsu created a manga series called Negima!, about a ten-year old boy wizard from Wales named Negi Springfield who was sent to Japan to teach English at an all-girl school in Japan. (Which makes very little sense, but it uses several very hallowed manga tropes, so we’re not supposed to think about that.)
Then Negima! became a TV series, with a slightly altered plot. And then this series, Negima!? Neo, adapted the TV show. So this book is the manga equivalent of that masterpiece of modern commerce, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Fred Saberhagen and James V. Hart” (the novelization of the 1992 Coppolla movie).
The story seems to be the same in broad outlines, but I understand that this will be a shorter retelling of the story. (There may also be fewer panty shots, which I expect will sadden Akamatsu’s hardcore fans.)
So it’s one part vague sexual tension – with a ten-year-old boy in Ben Franklin glasses on one side and about thirty very, very young-looking girls in super-tiny skirts on the other – and one part magical combat. The two sides are integrated, but not in a way that an adult will find conducive to happiness.
For one thing, Negi’s sneezes, for no adequately explained reason, have the power to shred the clothing of nearby students. And he sneezes quite a bit. (Even worse, near the end, Negi is holding a completely naked girl who is very much pre-pubescent. It’s tastefully done, but I don’t want to see even tasteful naked pre-pubescent girls in my manga, thank you very much.)
This is rated for teens 16 and up, but I would expect its real audience is boys around twelve or thirteen (and maybe girls of similar age; I still know a lot less about what girls know or like or want at that age). And it looks very nice, but these are not things that I particularly want to spend my time looking at.
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 to submit books for review should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.