Back to high school

I’m reading Again!! by Mitsuro Kubo. It’s a manga about a guy who spent his entire high school career friendless and alone, cursing his peers as lamers and suck-ups who obsess about frivolous and stupid shit like after-school clubs and good grades and dating. You see, he’s a misanthrope who just went to class and went home every day for years, carrying on with the bare minimum of life in high school.

And then he graduates. He has no plan or aspirations or dreams, and possibly no soul. However, the day after his graduation, he experiences a bizarre and inexplicable mishap and wakes up again on the first day of high school. The first time around, he was too shy to even answer when asked to join the “ouendan”, which is a club devoted to a male-dominated type of Japanese cheerleading. As Wikipedia describes it:

An ōendan (応援団), literally “cheering squad” or “cheering section”, is a Japanese sports rallying team similar in purpose to a cheerleading squad in the United States, but relies more on making a lot of noise with taiko drums, blowing horns and other items, waving flags and banners, and yelling through plastic megaphones in support of their sports team than on acrobatic moves (though some ōendan incorporate pom-pom girls). In addition to cheering for their own teams, ōendan have been known to lead fans in cheers which tease and taunt the other team and its fans. This is usually done in the spirit of good competition, but occasional fights have broken out if the taunting gets too heated. Smaller ōendan are sometimes called ōenbu (応援部, or “cheering clubs”).

In this go-around our protagonist barely makes an audible response to the recruiter, but it’s enough for her to shanghai him since the club is in desperate need of new members. Despite himself, he finally experiences all those things he’d looked down on – giving his all as part of a team, caring about his friends, having a crush on a girl and desperately wanting to know how they feel, and many more parts of high school life that he’d only seen secondhand.

And here we come to the misanthrope’s secret. Many misanthropes actually hate the fact that they hate other people and wish they were part of the community they see around them. “I wish I were a better person,” is the fantasy at the heart of this comic. I just wished it would remember this fact.

See, in a high school series, it’s easy to get caught up in the numerous setbacks that beset our characters. Oh no, the club might be dissolved! Oh no, the team captain and the manager are in a love triangle with our hero! Oh no, that silver-tongued hottie seducing that girl is secretly an asshole!

I mean, yeah, high school and life in general is a bunch of stuff happening one after another. The point of a narrative is giving structure to those events. Plus, if you’re just doing a story about a guy’s high school life, what’s even the point of the time travel angle?

The manga does come back repeatedly to the time travel thing, but mostly as a plot contrivance. There’s time spent on another person also being a time traveler, and more time spent on what kind of time travel we’re talking about (many worlds theory, parallel universes, grandfather paradoxes – though those specific terms aren’t used by the characters, but that’s what they mean).

However, there’s less space given to the emotional experience of reliving life. The protagonist himself mentions that he hasn’t taken advantage of his experience to talk more to his grandmother even though she passes away during his time in high school. More could also have been done with the second time traveler, who is actually a girl who enjoyed her high school life and is rather resentful that our protagonist managed to drag her along to a somewhat crappier version of her original experiences. By the latest translated volume, she remains a supporting character in our hero’s story and still hasn’t really come into her own.

Perhaps I’m overly critical, but I’m just a bit frustrated because I can see the manga only occasionally hitting its story potential, or at least not hitting the story potential I wish for. However, don’t be discouraged, there’s definitely something there to the manga as it is, since I wouldn’t have read 9 volumes over one week otherwise.

And one thing I can unequivocally praise about the comic is its artwork. I mean, look at it:

Cheerleader leaning down to pick up some pompoms with a resentful expression on her face

The sense of anatomy alone is superb – the weight in the step, the off-balance foot, the angle of the body. And the use of negative space!

A long-haired girl in a headband holding something over her head shares mutual glares  with a mustached boy standing with his arms crossed; both are dressed in Japanese boys' high school uniforms

This image shows off the negative space more clearly. And the expressions on the characters’ faces are so detailed for just a few simple lines. I often end up just pausing to stare at a splash page and enjoy the artistry.

Anyway, tl;dr: I think Again!! is an interesting manga that has the potential to become something more, if it ever figures out how to fully connect its plot to its premise.



The angel of combat

I liked Alita: Battle Angel. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the original manga, and I was rather concerned that a sprawling story would end up condensed into an abbreviated mishmash of various plot points set up to justify gratuitous and boring CGI action scenes.

But Robert Rodriguez pulled it off. I’m please with the narrative choices he made in taking a comic book story that unfolded over years and turning it into a regular length movie. Apparently James Cameron’s original script was 180 pages.

From viewing the trailer I thought it might be odd to see a big-eyed manga character interacting with actual people, but I quickly got used to it in the actual movie. I can see why the character of Alita was entirely CGI because of the numerous action scenes of cyborg kung fu – any live-action actor (Rosa Salazar, specifically) would need to be replaced by a computer-generated model when the fighting started, but there would have been a noticeable transition between the real person and the computer one. Having the character be completely CGI prevented this uncanny valley-tude.

It’s disappointing but I expect the movie won’t see a sequel. It appears not to have been a gigantic hit with the US market, though it’s been doing gangbusters overseas, especially in China. It made money but not Avengers money. I’m not even really put out, since even though the ending of the movie calls out for a continuation, what’s there is still satisfying on its own.

And my take-away from the whole thing? Alita is a quite decent action sci-fi film that I thoroughly enjoyed. If enough of you watch it, we might see Ed Norton in the sequel.

An Introduction to Manga

Front cover of Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics showing a collage of various manga covers

Thanks to the Japan Foundation, I’m reading Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics by Frederik Schodt (and if you want to know what the Japan Foundation was like I tweeted about it here). It was published in 1986, well before the manga boom of the mid-90s. Or was it the late 90s? I can barely remember a time when manga wasn’t the default comic book format for the majority of readers, at least in terms of sales.

So the book was written in a time when only specialists in Japan and the most dedicated of comic book hipsters knew anything about Japanese comics. It therefore explains manga from the ground up, going through its history and providing examples of manga of each era and type (mangas from the 50s, boys’ manga, girls’ manga, etc). It does the same thing that many comic book histories do in locating the origin of this mass market disposable entertainment in antecedent forms with greater cultural cachet but weak connections to the medium (i.e., I’ve seen people arguing that the Bayeux tapestry is also comics in that it combines pictures and words to tell a story). I understand why the comics historians do it, they’re trying to impart greater respectability to their medium by connecting it to older and more respected media, but I dunno, I think it’s more productive to define the medium by its relations of production and it stops you from going down ridiculous formalist arguments about whether magazine cigarette ads count as comics.

Moving on, I hadn’t realized I knew so much about manga as I’d already heard of quite a lot of apparently obscure works, or at least they were obscure back in the 80s. Time marches on and Rose of Versailles, for example, has an anime that I watched on streaming a few months ago. And of course there’s the scanlation community, which has probably done as much to spread knowledge of manga as any official initiatives from various industry groups.

The last chapter deals with manga’s future and in hindsight it completely failed to anticipate the explosion of overseas interest in the medium just ten short years later. In fact, it basically says that manga will probably remain a mostly Japanese thing, instead of something French schoolkids save their allowances for and whatnot.

Anyway, it’s an interesting snapshot of a specific moment in time in manga’s history.

The man behind Attack on Titan

Great interview with the Attack on Titan guy translated into English over here. Hajime Isayama sounds like a really cool dude to hang out with. He goes on about zombie flicks and Guillermo del Toro and stuff. It’s all interesting, but some interesting-er bits were that he’s a fan of Knights of Sidonia, was influenced by Muv-Luv Alternative (which was later spun off and adapted into the anime Total Eclipse and Schwarzesmarken), and modelled Captain Levi after Rorschach from Watchmen. I’m not into the manga, but now I’m looking forward even more to season 2 of the show.

Also, I gotta highlight this remark:

I thought it’d be awesome to actually be a battery for machines like in The Matrix.

Yotsuba and the Slice of Life

More from that interview translation blog: Interview With Yotsuba Artist Kiyohiko Azuma.

I’d like to point out that the guy also did Azumanga Daioh, the slice-of-life series I like to describe as Seinfeld if it was about Japanese high school girls. I couldn’t get into the manga, probably because I had trouble telling the girls apart, but I didn’t have that problem with the anime.

What’s interesting about the slice-of-life genre is that it’s always a slice of fictional life, which is to say that it’s always about the heartwarming and positive aspects of ordinary life. The lives being sliced are those without sorrow or tragedy or money problems or heartbreak. It’s inherently escapist, which, of course, is one of the biggest reasons behind the genre’s appeal.

I’m reminded of something I read a long time ago comparing tha manga Azumanga Daioh and High School Girls. I don’t even remember which blog I read this on, but the blogger observed that one of the biggest things they found unrealistic about Azumanga Daioh was that the high school girls never talked about boys. In contrast, the girls of High School Girls constantly talked about boys, about their periods, their make-up, their teachers, their rival social cliques – which is to say that they talked about the kinds of things actual high school girls talk about. This is unsurprising considering that the author based the series on her own experiences in an all-girls high school.

I quite liked High School Girls and nearly drove myself crazy trying to find copies of the manga. As you might expect, a series where girls talk frankly about menstruation kind of had niche appeal ten years ago. The series was made into an anime and renamed in English as Girl’s High.  Things in the story were necessarily squished for the adaptation, which is why I consider the original manga to be superior, but at least the anime ending was charming and fun.

Yeah, I realize that the dancing is just rotoscoped actors, but I do like how the way each character dances directly links to their personality – the uptight girl does the frug (I think that’s what it’s called), the extrovert goes crazy with a guitar riff, and so on. And even better, all of the girls are endearingly awkward. It really does look like a bunch of teenage girls messing around instead of accomplished dance students displaying their skills. Plus the ending shows just how much effort the girls put into appearing cute – the make-up, the studied playfulness, the deliberate construction of their social fronts. It’s not Erving Goffman but it’s still something.

An interview with Tsutomu Nihei

Over here is a translated interview of Tsutomu Nihei, the author of Knights of Sidonia.  I find it interesting that he’s aware he needs to do more to make his work appeal to female readers. I dunno, dude, maybe make it less male gaze-y? Just change up the presentation and quit with the harem antics and fanservice.

It’s not like Sidonia’s subject matter or setting are alien to shoujo or to female readers. I mean, Please Save My Earth had psychic death battles and They Were Eleven began with a giant info-dump about fusion reactors and space empires – things that should be pleasantly familiar to old school grognards stuck in the sci-fi ghetto. (The latter also had transgender aliens reenacting And Then There Were None in space, but I digress.)

Though I do wish the interviewer had asked Nihei more about his science fiction influences. Which novels did mini-Nihei consume as he dreamed of writing his own science fiction? Still, it’s an interesting interview and even if you’ve never read the manga (like me) it still gives an interesting perspective on what made Knights of Sidonia.

Back in time

The manga Luca, The Summer I Shared With You is essentially a love letter to classic Western sci-fi, with most of the chapters being titled after science fiction classics. The throwback atmosphere is probably why I liked this book so much.

The story itself is about a teenage boy whose sister’s mind has been replaced by that of a soldier from the future trying to prevent a disaster. It feels kind of like a mid-century sci-fi juvenile novel, especially with the focus on the made-up science and the way the protagonist is always coldly rational, though the weird time travel sex shit is more like Heinlein’s adult works.

But hey, the art is great.

Bottom line? I loved this manga, warts and all.

Ultraelectromagnetic pop

I’ve noticed that a lot of manga that I like were initially published by BEAM COMIX (rendered as Comic Beam in the linked Wikipedia article for reasons I can’t ascertain).  It’s a magazine that serializes manga mainly targeted at an adult male audience.

It seems to me, judging from their published titles that I’ve enjoyed, that the publisher releases offbeat works with unique premises that are compellingly readable. What have I read of theirs? Let’s see, there’s the magical realism of Ran and the Gray World, the character-driven kitchen sink comedy of Hinamatsuri, the indie comic action of Bambi and Her Pink Gun,  the anthropological detail of A Bride’s Story, the science fiction violence of Immortal Hounds, and the adventure comedy of Dungeon Meshi. This is an all star line-up.

According to the ol’ Wiki, the magazine is considered by many as focusing on “alternative” manga, which from context sounds like the Japanese equivalent of indie comics. It has a very small readership of 25,000 but consisting largely of hardcore enthusiasts and art students. To my mind, BEAM COMIX’s readers would probably be the type to own copies of Understanding Comics (the comic book bible) were they to live over here instead. In fact, quite a few of the magazine’s Japanese audience probably do own copies of Understanding Comics themselves.

Whatever they’re doing, BEAM COMIX is doing it right. Their editors know how to pick a winning story. I’m going to keep an eye out for their other stuff from now on.

True romance

I recently watched the first episode of the anime Actually, I Am, which revolves around a love confession. It wasn’t my thing, but while watching I had to ask: do Japanese kids actually do this kind of thing?

Haru confessing his feelings to Shizuku: I think I like you. In a sexual way!
It’s from My Little Monster.

See, the classic love confession from anime and manga goes like this: a school-aged character approaches in private their secret crush (normally a classmate and one who they may not have even spoken with before) and tells them, “I like you, please go out with me”.

I’d never really thought about it, as this cliche is very common in anime and manga, but I realize now that this is a pretty damn awkward situation to be in. When approached by a near-total stranger – who you may only have spoken a few words in passing to before – and asked for a date out of the blue, the normal reaction is to tell them no. With this in mind, isn’t the classic love confession approach basically a recipe for rejection?

Considering it further, the love confession strategy seems like something a socially awkward person would do. They know they want to go out with someone but they don’t really know how to approach them so they go all in. They skip the getting-to-know-you part and go straight for the asking out part.

Really, a more reasonable approach, and one more conducive to success, would probably be for the besotted party to befriend and hang out with the object of their romantic interest first without immediately going for the metaphorical jugular.

It’s such an obvious stratagem that I have to wonder whether Japanese kids actually do the love confession thing at all. Is this basically just a cliche that mostly exists in the minds of anime and manga writers? One wonders.