Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna)

shuna-no-tabi

Title: シュナの旅 (Shuna no tabi)
English Title: The Journey of Shuna
Author: Miyazaki Hayao (宮崎 駿)
Publication Year: 1983
Publisher: Animage Bunko
Pages: 149

This guest review is written by L.M. Zoller (@odorunara on Twitter).

Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna) is a short watercolor manga by Studio Ghibli director Miyazaki Hayao. Shuna is not only the precursor to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but also to Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä’s spiritual successor. It contains many of the themes that define Miyazaki’s oeuvre, such as the relationship between humans and nature, human rights, and pacifism.

Shuna is a prince from a small nation in a valley where food cannot grow easily and the people and animals are starving. One day, an injured old traveler wanders into his community. Before the man dies, he tells Shuna about a place where golden grain grows in abundance and gives him some seeds that a traveler gave him when he was a young man. Shuna decides to set off on a journey in search of the grain with Yakuul, his red antelope. Along the way, he fights slave traders and thieves and rescues a young woman, Thea, and her sister from slavery in the castle town of Dorei. They outrun the slave traders and eventually part ways. Thea and her sister go to a town in the north where they live with an old lady. Thea farms, raises animals, and weaves. Meanwhile, Shuna enters a forest full of giant green humanoids who become the forest when they die. The giants are people sold into slavery who are transformed into giants in an organic machine with the help of the Moon, who appears almost like a mask in the sky and appears to be a deity or other supernatural creature. Shuna finds the fabled golden grain in the forest, but his journey back to Thea and her sister is more difficult than anticipated.

Fans of Miyazaki’s work will be delighted to discover the prototypes for certain themes and scenes from both Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke in Shuna no tabi. While the story is certainly more simplistic than the works it inspired, there’s still a lot going on beneath the surface. What is the machine that turns people into forest giants? If the Moon is a god, are there other gods? What relationship do the slave traders have with the Moon?

Additionally, many illustrations from Shuna no tabi were later recalled in Miyazaki’s animation. A scene of Shuna eating while looking at some fox-squirrels in the forest is reused in Nausicaä, whose heroine eats with her pet fox-squirrel Teto in an identical pose. After Shuna leaves the city, he encounters and camps with an old man who tells him to go west to find the grain, a scene that is used again in Mononoke when Ashitaka camps with the monk Jiko, who tells him the iron bullet he found came from the west. The old man’s character design is reused for a priest in Nausicaä as well. The aesthetic elements of the Valley of the Wind also have their origins in Shuna no tabi, particularly the formal wear of the northern village and the murals in Shuna’s home. Some of the illustrations depicting the forest, especially the image of the flowers growing out of Shuna’s gun, were later reused in Mononoke.

From the perspective of gender representation, one thing I’ve noticed and admired in many of Miyazaki’s works is that he doesn’t use extreme sexual dimorphism – that is, his young adult male and female protagonists tend to be built alike. Shuna and Thea look nearly identical in body shape and facial features, and they both resemble Nausicaä and Ashitaka. While Miyazaki’s character designs for middle-aged characters feature more differences in height and build, the dimorphism is nowhere as extreme as it is in Disney and Pixar films (and for that, this genderqueer reviewer is grateful).

The biggest difference between Shuna no tabi and the works that followed it, however, is Miyazaki’s commitment to pacifism. Shuna spends a lot of time defending himself by shooting at people with his gun, and at the end of the story the village in the north still has to use guns to defend their land. In contrast, both Nausicaä and Ashitaka commit acts of violence in the beginning of their stories, mostly in self-defense. These experiences directly shape their commitment to pacifism as they both try to end the violence surrounding them; Nausicaä’s goal is to end a war between the kingdom of Tolkmekia and its colonies, while Ashitaka does his best to intervene in a conflict between Tataraba (Iron Town) and the deities of the forest. This is not to say that these characters refuse to commit violence, but that the narrative tone regarding violence shifts significantly as their stories develop.

The watercolor images are gorgeously rendered, and all the pages are in full color. My only complaint with the publication quality of the book is that the text, which is often printed directly onto the images instead of in word bubbles, can sometimes be hard to read, especially when the text is printed in white or blue ink. Adding the standard border and background to set off the text from the surrounding image would have eliminated this difficulty, albeit at the expense of preserving the full glory of the paintings.

I recommend Shuna no tabi primarily for fans of Miyazaki’s films who want to explore his earlier work. Shuna no tabi has not been translated into English, but it is written at a middle school level of language and should be accessible to readers with a high intermediate proficiency in Japanese. I would evaluate the Japanese at an N2 level, more so for the vocabulary than for the grammar. There isn’t a lot of violence in Shuna no tabi, but its depictions of slavery and starvation may be uncomfortable for some readers.

* * * * *

L.M. Zoller is a former JET CIR with an MA in Japan Studies. Ze wrote zir senior thesis on moral development theory in Miyazaki’s films and has probably seen Princess Mononoke 100 times (no joke). L.M. blogs about media and gender at The Lobster Dance (@odorunara) and food, sexuality, and gender at I’ll Make It Myself! (@illmakeitmyself).

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Manga through the Eyes of an Architect

Manga through the Eyes of an Architect

Title: Manga through the Eyes of an Architect: The Economics of Yotsuba&!, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Evangelion, and Persona 4
Japanese Title: 建築家が見たマンガの世界:よつばと!、ジョジョの奇妙な冒険、ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版、ペルソナ4の経済編 (Kenchikuka ga mita manga no sekai: Yotsubato, Jojo no kimyō na bōken, Evangerion shingekijōban, Perusona 4 no keizaihen)
Author: Sakurada Ikka (櫻田 一家)
Publisher: Gloria Earth Technology
Publication Year: 2015
Pages: 199

In his preface, architect Sakurada Ikka explains that the idea for this book came about through a conversation with a group of friends at a bar. A young editor, referring to the adage that “a good novel will make its protagonist’s economic circumstances clear,” wondered if the same could be said for manga. Sakurada, knowing full well that someone’s home reflects their socioeconomic status, posited that any story with solid worldbuilding would give the reader a clear picture of the living space of its characters. Once he set about investigating this issue, however, he realized that there were a great many gaps lurking in the shadows of even the most solidly constructed manga (and anime, and video games). Manga through the Eyes of an Architect thus functions as a set of close readings that attempt to fill in these gaps.

Sakurada opens his book with a precise examination of Yotsuba&! in an attempt to hammer out the details of its setting. For instance, when does it begin? (Probably July 18.) Where in Japan is Ajisai City, the fictional town where Yotsuba and her adoptive father Koiwai Yōsuke live? (Probably in Chiba Prefecture in the general vicinity of Narita airport.) What direction does Yotsuba’s house face? (Probably south.)

Sakurada uses evidence not only from passages in the manga but also from his own real-world research and observation. For example, in trying to figure out where Koiwai’s parents live, Sakurada argues that, since Koiwai borrowed a light cargo truck (a 2001 Mazda 660KU series, to be exact) from his friend Jumbo to move from his parents’ house to Ajisai City at the beginning of the first volume of the manga, he probably wasn’t traveling for more than a few hours. The “New Pione” label on a package Koiwai’s mom sends him (in Chapter 27 of Volume 5) would seem to indicate Okayama Prefecture, but that’s too far away, so it’s probably coming from nearby Yamanashi Prefecture, a somewhat lesser-known source of the brand’s grapes.

When I wrote “a precise examination” earlier, that’s the level of precision I mean. Sakurada does walkthroughs of his reasoning like Sherlock Holmes, and it’s fascinating to read through his evidence and conjectures.

The next section of the book investigates the floorplan of Kishibe Rohan’s house from Part 4 (the “Diamond Is Unbreakable” arc) of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Despite Araki Hirohiko’s comment that his manga isn’t popular in America because Americans have no sense of style, all of the homes of the major characters exhibit classically American architecture. Sakurada teases out the layout of Rohan’s house room by room while discussing the history of the architecture and the furniture. As an American, I enjoyed seeing things I take for granted, such as Queen Anne houses and Mansard roofs, being treated as fascinating – and expensive! – foreign oddities. Sakurada tries to puzzle out how successful Rohan is as a manga artist by referring to the information presented in the manga Bakuman (about two manga industry hopefuls). For example, how many manga would Rohan need to sell in order to afford his Porsche 928 GTS? How do Rohan’s sales compare to the sales of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure? Was this sort of wealth achievable for a manga artist in the late 1990s?

Sakurada continues with an analysis of the Rebuild of Evangelion movies (released in 2007, 2009, and 2012). In order to figure out how much Ikari Shinji’s guardian Katsuragi Misato is paying for her apartment, he argues that we must first understand how the catastrophic “Second Impact” event affected the earth. Since the viewer is told this disaster melted the polar ice caps, Sakurada employs math and maps to demonstrate what parts of Japan would have been submerged. He also speculates on how various Japanese industries would suffer from the resulting climate change, as well as how this would affect local economies and regional infrastructures within Japan.

Sakurada’s main concern in this section, however, is Misato’s annual salary. Her apartment accommodates herself, her pet penguin, two teenagers who get their own bedrooms (Shinji and Asuka), plus tons of extra space for her garbage, including a nice kitchen and living room. Given the state of Japan’s postapocalyptic economy, Misato must be doing well for herself in order to afford such a large place. (I guess NERV has to pay people the big bucks to put up with Shinji’s asshole father.) In addition, Sakurada gives a detailed analysis of each character’s room, providing an interesting set of insights. For instance, Shinji’s haplessness is emphasized by the fact that the room he’s given in Misato’s huge apartment is tiny and has no windows. Sakurada concludes with an estimate of Shinji’s dad’s salary, arguing that the women in Shinji’s life should really consider being nicer to him.

The final section of the book, which is by far its shortest, is about “The Mysteries of the Dōjima House.” The Dōjima house is the residence of the protagonist of the 2008 PlayStation 2 game Persona 4. Although a wealth of material related to the game and its 2011-2012 animated adaptation (not to mention several spin-off titles) has been released, Sakurada has been able to find numerous inconsistencies in the official floorplans of the quaint Shōwa-era structure that serves as the player’s (or viewer’s) home base. Where is the staircase, exactly? What’s filling all the space that’s unaccounted for on the second floor? Where’s the bathroom?

Although it helps to be familiar with the source texts under discussion, this is not necessary in order for the reader to enjoy his speculation and analysis. No prior knowledge of architecture is required, and Sakurada’s clear explanations and frequent illustrations render his arguments accessible to even a casual reader.

Granted, both the information presented and Sakurada’s readings are highly specific. In fandom terms, what Sakurada is performing would be referred to as “textual meta,” meaning that his analysis is so minute and self-referential that it might not make sense to people outside the fandom. As I wrote above, I don’t think this is true – I know very little about Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure but still enjoyed reading Sakurada’s essays on its architecture and economics.

Still, it brings up an interesting point concerning how manga and other pop culture texts should be discussed in an academic context. Is it absolutely necessary to reference larger social, historical, and intellectual currents, or are we allowed to dig our heels into the text itself in order to make it more meaningful? In my opinion, Manga through the Eyes of an Architect is close reading done right, and I can only hope that more formal English-language discussions of manga in this mode of inquiry appear as the related fields of Comics Studies and Anime and Manga Studies continue establish themselves.

Buchō wa onee

Buchou wa onee

Title: Mr. F. Vincent Is……
Japanese Title: 部長はオネエ (Buchō wa onee)
Artist: Nagabe (ながべ)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Akane Shinsha (茜新社)
Pages: 231

Falnail Vincent is a section chief at a large corporation in Japan. He is cool, collected, and very good at his job. His colleagues respect him, and his subordinates admire him, but he’s desperately trying to keep a secret from his co-workers: When he leaves work, Falnail becomes Fal-chan, a hostess at an onee bar. At typical onee bars, patrons are served by glamorous “older sister” types, but Fal-chan’s bar, Jewelry, happens to be staffed by huge beefcakes in heels, hairbows, and strapless minidresses.

Cracks in Falnail’s masculine persona appear when he forgets that he’s not supposed to gush about girly topics like patisseries and makeup bags with his female co-workers. Still, he’s able to keep his two lives separate until a new patron at Jewelry, an American named George Weaver, shows up at his office the next day as a foreign business associate. Being a typical American (the kind that speaks perfect Japanese), George is upfront about his interest in Fal-chan and won’t take “no” for an answer, inviting Falnail out on dates to an amusement park and a fancy restaurant. Meanwhile, George’s advances have sparked the competitive spirit of Danto Impasu, Falnail’s junior at work who’s been harboring a crush on his boss. Because this is a manga, Danto also ends up visiting Jewelry, and hijinks ensue.

None of this deviates far from the routine BL nonsense we all know and love, but what’s a bit out of the ordinary is that everyone in this manga is an animal. George is a bird, Danto is a wolf, and Falnail is some sort of dragon. The mama-san of Jewelry is a tiger, and Fal-chan’s fellow hostesses are a shark and a ram. During his day job, Falnail works with rabbits, roosters, foxes, tanuki, and all manner of other creatures.

The tagline for Buchō wa onee, which just finished serialization in the bi-monthly BL magazine Opera, is “Jūjin + Suits + ML.” Jūjin (獣人) is a subset of a genre of manga called kemono-kei (ケモノ系), which might be glossed as “anthro.” As opposed to jingai (人外), in which mostly human characters have isolated animal body parts like ears or tails, jūjin, or “beast people,” are animals that speak, dress, and walk upright like humans. “ML” is an abbreviation of “mens love,” a subgenre of BL in which the characters are middle-aged and built like brick houses.

As in English-language anthro communities, there seems to be a strong interest male/male romance written and drawn by men and for men in Japanese kemono-kei, with bears being portrayed as literal bears (or wolves, or lions, or Satanic demons, or what have you). Buchō wa onee is extremely silly and lighthearted, but its overt bara stylizations hint at what I see as a movement away from the classic portrayal of androgynous bishōnen masculinity within the world of original dōjinshi comics for women.

I don’t want to read too much into the series of cute tableaus collected in Buchō wa onee, but the normalized strangeness of animals going about their daily lives in an environment otherwise exactly like our own lends an interesting perspective on Falnail’s dilemma, which is that he feels the need to keep his two personas entirely separate. He worries that his colleagues, who depend on him to be authoritative, won’t respect him if they find out about Fal-chan, but the fact that everyone is a different type of animal betrays the reality of the true diversity of the world, where it is not necessarily the case that one’s “species” affects one’s personality in any way. Over the course of the manga, it’s suggested that, even if Falnail isn’t completely comfortable with moving to America and living with George as an openly gay man, he can begin to bridge the gap between his two identities by slowly revealing himself to a sympathetic co-worker.

Mostly, however, Buchō wa onee is about ferocious anthro muscleheads being adorable. Sometimes it’s good to just leave all the real life gay drama behind in real life, you know?

If you’re interested in checking out more of the artist’s work, Nagabe is on Pixiv and Tumblr.

Since today is August 1, I also want to give a shout-out to the round-up of 2015 yaoi-themed web comics posted by Khursten Santos over at her blog Otaku Champloo. To all my fellow fujoshi and fudanshi, stay fabulous and never lose your sparkle-tinted glasses. Happy 801 Day!

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past

Title: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Japanese Title: ゼルダの伝説 (Zeruda no densetsu)
Artist: Ishinomori Shōtaro (石ノ森 章太郎)
Translator: Dan Owsen
Publication Year: 2015 (America, new edition); 1993 (America and Japan, original edition)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 196

Full disclosure: I read this manga countless times as a kid, and the game it’s based on is one of the greatest loves of my life. This review is biased, because of course it is.

My own adoration aside, Viz Media’s new publication of manga giant Ishinomori Shintarō‘s adaptation of the 1991 Super Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past has been selling extremely well since it was released a month ago.

A Link to the Past on the NYT Bestseller List

This success makes perfect sense. Not only is The Legend of Zelda a major video game franchise with its own culture cachet, but Viz has also managed to put out a handsome publication, and manga’s story is easy to follow and immediately accessible to readers not familiar with the games.

The teenage orphan Link lives peacefully in a quiet village in “the pristine land of Hyrule” when, one stormy night, his uncle is summoned to the castle. Link is awoken by a voice claiming to be the princess Zelda, who telepathically tells him that she is being held prisoner in her own dungeons. Link, fearing shenanigans, rushes to the castle in the rain only to see his uncle put to death by a powerful wizard named Agahnim (whose dark skin and Orientalist stylings are how you know he’s a bad guy, yikes). Link manages to infiltrate the castle and rescue Zelda, only to have her immediately kidnapped once more by the wizard, who intends to use her to break the seal on an even greater evil. Before she’s spirited off to wherever princesses are stashed away in such situations, Zelda manages to tell Link that it’s his destiny to save Hyrule and that he must locate the legendary Master Sword, which is the only blade capable of defeating the powerful force controlling Agahnim. Off he goes, and adventure ensues.

Video game adaptations into other media tend to be hit or miss, but Ishinomori, genius that he is, pulls off his manga rendering of A Link to the Past flawlessly. Although Link is never really alone in the game (as he is always accompanied by you, the player), his quest is a lonely one, as he bears the sole responsibility for delivering the land from a terrible fate. Ishinomori especially excels at portraying Link’s smallness in a vast world filled with hostile creatures. The action sequences – and there are a lot of them – are nicely choreographed, with a smooth flow facilitated by expert paneling. This flow is so dependable that, when it’s interrupted, the reader is instantly made aware that Link has encountered a true threat, as he does in his final battle with Ganon, the story’s ultimate villain.

A Link to the Past Link vs Ganon

The manga is also populated by friendly characters who aid Link along his journey. The most striking of these fellow wayfarers is a bird-like “mystery knight” named Roam (a classic Ishinomori archetype in both personality and visual characterization). The inhabitants of Ganon’s dark world, a mirror reflection of Hyrule that changes the shape of people based on the truest form of their hearts, are also given small roles that help raise the stakes of Link’s battle. For example, immediately after Link is exiled to the dark world by Agahnim, he encounters a talking tree who explains to him that there are many other people who, for whatever reason, followed Ganon into the dark world only to become trapped there, doomed to wander as beasts or serve an evil master until a hero can purify the land. Such accounts add layers of depth to the story that aren’t to be found in the original game, in which the player progresses from objective to objective simply to experience the next challenge.

Despite the assistance of friends he encounters, Link is still one boy caught up in a legend much larger than his own life, a theme Ishinomori emphasizes with splash panels depicting Link as a faceless dot at one corner of a daunting landscape. In the game on which the manga is based, the enemy the player must engage most frequently is the environment itself, and the artist’s translation of this element into menacing backgrounds and elaborate framing devices is beautiful to behold. Ishinomori’s interpretation of Ganon’s castle, the revelation of which is a climactic moment, is especially awe-inspiring.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are also some fun Easter eggs for Zelda fans scattered throughout the manga. I don’t want to spoil all of them; but, to give an example, Link flies to the Desert Ruins in a winged hang glider. As the villager who provides him with this contraption recounts, “They say these miracle wings belonged to a powerful bird that carried the knights of Hyrule into battle!” In retrospect, this statement seems to refer to the events alluded to in Skyward Sword. And yet, considering that this was written more than ten years ago, one can’t help but wonder how much of the lore explored in more recent games was already in place as the earliest titles were being developed. Or, conversely, was this manga perhaps a guiding influence for subsequent world building?

This manga was originally serialized in the American gaming magazine Nintendo Power from January to December 1992. The following year, it was published as a full-color collected volume by Nintendo of America and in a black-and-white tankōbon by Shōgakukan in Japan. As such, it’s an interesting slice of both manga and video game history. Manga was still relatively unknown in the United States in 1992, and Viz Media only started publishing its groundbreaking Animerica magazine the following year. Meanwhile, Gail Tilden (the marketing manager at Nintendo of America) and the editors of Nintendo Power, the first publication of its kind, were responding to the sudden appearance of a rabid gaming public in the wake of U.S. release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1991. (More information about the early years of the magazine can be found in Jon Irwin‘s excellent Super Mario Bros. 2.) It’s extremely interesting that Nintendo was already attempting a manga/game media mix marketing strategy through the burgeoning medium of English-language video game journalism. It’s also interesting that Viz seems to be using a similar strategy – using the popularity of a gaming franchise to promote manga – with this new release.

Even if you don’t usually care for video games or manga, Ishinomori Shōtaro is a force of nature and a credit to the human race. Since it’s difficult to find his work in English translation, Viz’s new edition of A Link to the Past is a fantastic opportunity to see a master artist and storyteller at the top of his game.

A Link to the Past Link's Battle Against Trinexx

Nickelodeon

Nickelodeon Blue

Title: Nickelodeon
Japanese Title: ニッケルオデオン (Nikkeruodeon)
Artist: Dowman Sayman (道満 清明)
Publisher: Shōgakukan (小学館)
Publication Dates: 11/2010 – 10/2014
Volumes: 3 (赤・緑・青)

I sometimes feel as if I’ve spent the past ten years of my life trying to find another Azumanga Daioh: a set of girl-centric stories that are weird and funny and touching without being male gazey. I love Azumanga Daioh‘s cute artwork and bizarre situations and perfect ratio of dark to sweet humor. Having read my way across a large swath of its many, many imitators, I’ve come to the conclusion that Azumanga Daioh is one of a kind. But I’ve found something close, yet different – and just as enjoyable.

Dowman Sayman’s Nickelodeon series is, on the surface, nothing like Azumanga Daioh. Each of the manga’s stand-alone stories is exactly eight pages long; and, aside from a few inconsequential crossover references, they have nothing to do with each other. Whereas Azumanga Daioh was all about the daily lives of high school girls, the subject matter of the stories in Nickelodeon ranges from grotesque fantasy to sci-fi spoofs to sarcastic magical realism. Unlike Azumanga Daioh, which has few male characters of note, the cute girls of Nickelodeon are more than adequately balanced by cute boys. What Nickelodeon does have in common with Azumanga Daioh is the tone of its unique style offbeat humor, as well as the artist’s ability to imbue stock characters with unexpected depth and feeling.

At the core of each of the stories in the series is a relationship between people, with “people” being a relative term. These relationships can be friendly, or romantic, or antagonistic, or a mix of all three. Boys are paired with girls, boys are paired with other boys, girls are paired with girls, girls are paired with tigers, boys are paired with flesh-eating demons, high school students are paired with clueless angels, conjoined twins are paired with blind dates, and ghosts of all sexes are all over the place. There are robots, giants, mad scientists, wish-granting devils, zombie princesses, and seemingly normal people with all manner of strange hobbies. The artist is like Scheherazade, spinning a seemingly infinite number of stories out of contemporary pop culture tropes, but all of his stories are refreshingly original.

One of my favorites is the cover story of the “Green” volume (pictured below), “Hickey & Gackey” (Hikkī & Gakkī). The piece opens with a girl named Otowa delivering a set of handouts to her classmate Sengoku-san, who seems to have become a hikikomori some time ago. Sengoku-san lives alone in her house, which has become a gomi-yashiki (trash hoarder’s den). After speaking briefly with Sengoku-san, Otowa promises to come again next week, but Sengoku-san tells her that this is the last time they’ll meet, as the city is sending an enormous garbage disposal unit named “Duskin Hoffman” (Duskin is a Japanese company that makes Swiffer-like cleaning implements) to her house to dispose of her like the rubbish she is. Suddenly, the ground starts shaking, the blades start whirling, the trash starts flying, and Otowa reaches out to Sengoku-san, making a last desperate confession. It’s absurd and ridiculous but somehow manages to punch you right in the feels, and the ending is beautifully open to interpretation.

Nickelodeon was serialized in Shōgakukan’s recently defunct IKKI monthly alternative seinen magazine, and its readers were thus expected to be genre-saavy and open to weirdness. The manga also contains moments of overt sexuality – it’s nothing that could even remotely be considered pornographic, but some of the characters are shown engaging in adult thoughts and behaviors, and there is occasional cartoonish nudity. The humor is for the most part good-natured, and the author emphasizes and plays on the silliness and personality quirks of his characters, not the sizes and shapes of their bodies. However, because male and female humans are portrayed as having nipples (the horror!), I don’t foresee Nickelodeon being licensed in North America. If you can speak a little Japanese, though, it’s fairly easy to read. In fact, I assigned a chapter to my fourth-year Japanese class this past fall, and the students seemed to really enjoy it.

Nickelodeon is almost perfectly bespoke to my own personal tastes, so it may be that I’m biased, but I think the three-volume series represents many of the great pleasures of manga written for an adult audience. Downman Sayman is wonderfully talented, and I’m expecting great things from him in the future. Hopefully one day his work will find its way into English!

The artist has two other two-volume seinen series, The Voynich Hotel (Voinicchi Hoteru) and Paraiso (Para☆Iso), available on Amazon.co.jp, and you can also find him on Twitter. Although he hasn’t updated it in some time, he has an account on Tumblr, which is cute and hilarious (but not entirely safe for work).

Nickelodeon Green

Marshmallow Bungaku Girl

Marshmallow Bungaku Girl

Title: Marshmallow Bungaku Girl
Japanese Title: ましまろ文學ガール (Mashimaro bungaku gāru)
Alternate Title: Mädchen Marshmallow Literatur
Artist: Amano Taka (天乃 タカ)
Publisher: enterbrain (エンターブレイン)
Publication Dates: 6/27/2011 – 2/15/2013
Volumes: 2

In the late Meiji Period, as Japan undergoes the process of modernization, Hoshino Mone is a student at an all-girls private high school in Tokyo, where she lives with her male guardian, Sei. Although a young woman’s duty is to be beautiful and modest so as to become a suitable bride, Mone has a different dream – she wants to write literature! Literature (the bungaku of the manga’s title) is believed to corrupt women, so Mone cuts off her braids, dons schoolboy clothing, and joins an all-male literature club. Although she must face a bit of drama concerning her choices, the friends Mone makes help her hone her talents and offer her inspiration as they take her on adventures around town. The handsome young literary illustrator Nasuhito knows Mone’s secret but believes in her potential. Nasuhito’s respect for Mone as a fellow artist is not the only source of his warm feelings for her, however.

Although Bungaku Girl was published in the seinen magazine Fellows! – the former name of Kadokawa’s prestige-format monthly serial Harta (ハルタ) – it reads like a shōjo manga from the 1990s, when the influence of series such as Fushigi Yûgi and Cardcaptor Sakura injected elements of gender bending and bishōnen harems into even the most prosaic romance stories. All of the young men in the literature club are impossibly gorgeous, and everyone is decked out in immaculate period dress. There’s a hint of yuri provided by the radiant high school princess Sono, another literature fan who becomes enamored of Mone’s courage and independent spirit, but there are no elements of the male gaze to be found in the manga’s story or art. Instead, there are touches of Mori Kaoru in the close attention paid to historically accurate fabrics, interiors, street scenes, and city vistas.

Bungaku Girl is less about Mone’s cross-dressing and gender identity than it is about her commitment to doing whatever it takes to find a supportive community for what she loves. Many of the story’s most powerful moments occur when the characters are being creative – when Mone is writing, or when Nasuhito is drawing, for instance – and these moments are reinforced by being framed within the sense of belonging to a group of people all working together to share their ideas and produce something tangible. For us nerds who have studied modern Japanese literary history, there are pleasurable echoes of the student groups, coterie magazines, and research trips into pleasure districts associated with real-life literary figures.

This two-volume series is only available in Japanese, but it would be really cool if someone were to license it in North America. The story is simple and charming, the characters are adorable, and the art is clean and attractive. Bungaku Girl offers love, drama, and interesting imagery, not to mention encouragement to leave your comfort zone and live your dreams!

Bungaku Girl Volume 1 Page 23

I… want to join your literature club!

From Five to Nine

From Five to Nine 1

Title: From Five to Nine
Japanese Title: 5時から9時まで (Goji kara kuji made)
Author: Aihara Miki (相原 実貴)
Publication Year: 2010 (ongoing)
Publisher: Shōgakukan
Pages (per volume): 190

From Five to Nine is the current project of Aihara Miki, whose manga Hot Gimmick and Honey Hunt have been published in English translation by Viz Media. Like Aihara’s earlier titles, From Five to Nine is a drama-filled exposé of the love lives of gorgeous young people going about their business in the trendy districts on the southwest side of Tokyo. From Five to Nine is serialized in Monthly Cheese!, an unfortunately named magazine that serves as a bridge between a shōjo readership of tweens captivated by stories of pure love and a josei readership of young women interested in the more physical aspects of romantic relationships. In accordance with the magazine’s house style, all of the characters in the manga are well dressed and ridiculously attractive, emotional and sexual tensions always run high, and chapters end on cliffhangers more often than not. In other words, From Five to Nine is highly entertaining, addictive reading. It’s designed to be.

What I think is interesting about this manga is the way it explores the conflicts between different gender roles and expectations of femininity through the love affairs of its main protagonist.

Sakuraba Junko, the leading lady, teaches during the evenings at an English language conversation school (Eikaiwa gakkō). Because of her friendly professionalism and almost native fluency, she’s considered to be one of the top instructors at her workplace, and her dream is to save up enough money to study abroad in America. Since Junko has passed through her early twenties without having settled down with a man, her grandmother has started to set her up on dates with potential marriage partners through a somewhat formalized process known as miai. To appease her grandmother, Junko spends her twenty-seventh birthday out on a miai date with a Buddhist monk named Hoshikawa Takane, who graduated from Tokyo University with a major in Indian philosophy. Junko is put off by what she sees as Hoshikawa’s snobbishness; but, thinking that their date is a one-time thing and that she’ll never see him again, Junko ends up sleeping with him on a lark. For Hoshikawa, however, that one night is the beginning of TRUE LOVE FOREVER.

Because this is a manga by Aihara Miki, Junko is fated to be the unfortunate object of nonconsensual manly persuasion concerning a relationship that she doesn’t particularly care for. Immediately after Junko gets back from her one night stand with Hoshikawa, she realizes that the deadline to move out of her apartment, whose building is slated for renewal, is fast approaching. When she goes to her grandmother for help, her grandmother suggests that she take temporary residence (geshuku) in a temple with connections to the family. Unfortunately, this temple is headed by Hoshikawa, who now wants to make Junko his temple wife (tera no yome). Being a temple wife is a full-time job, and a marriage to Hoshikawa would require Junko to give up her position at the English conversation school where she currently works, as well as her dream to study abroad. Essentially, if she were to marry Hoshikawa, Junko would have to give up the pleasures of her existence as an independent urbanite and spend her days cooking, cleaning, dressing herself in traditional clothing, setting out flower arrangements, and entertaining guests. Needless to say, she wants none of this. Hoshikawa won’t give up on her so easily, however, and he takes to stalking her, abducting her, and harassing her at both at home and at her workplace. One particularly unpleasant stunt Hoshikawa pulls is to lock Junko up in a small guesthouse separated from the main temple compound by an ornamental garden. In order to escape, Junko agrees to marry Hoshikawa; and, to keep him fooled regarding her true intentions, she makes a show of waking up early to devote herself to cleaning, all the while scheming of ways to get away from the temple.

Meanwhile, her college friend Mishima Satoshi, who has been assigned to his company’s branch office in America, shows up at Junko’s school in order to brush up on his English. Mishima has feelings for Junko and harbors a secret desire to take her to America with him; but, as Junko becomes more aware of Mishima’s intentions and her own reciprocal feelings for him, she surprises herself by becoming conflicted over leaving Hoshikawa and the life he’s offering her. Junko has also attracted the interest of one of her younger pupils, a wealthy student at an elite high school who cross dresses so effectively that only a small handful of his friends know that he’s actually male. This student, Satonaka Yuki, dislikes both Hoshikawa and Mishima and wants Junko to be able to stand on her own two feet outside of relationships with creepy stalker monks and alcoholic playboy salarymen.

This is high melodrama, of course, but what is interesting about Junko’s love life is how aptly it represents the push and pull between traditional and contemporary women’s roles. Should Junko give into social and sexual pressure and relinquish her independence and her dreams, or should she take advantage of a potential romantic partner’s kindness in order to break free of the constraints of living in Japan? Is it possible for her to somehow fend for herself without a social and economic safety net? Because of the romantic drama, the reader is able to experience the emotional attraction and anxiety of all of these possibilities. For example, when Hoshikawa does something ridiculous in order to (sometimes literally) lock Junko into a traditional gender role, the denial of agency that Junko suffers is viscerally upsetting to the reader. As it gradually becomes clear that Hoshikawa genuinely cares for Junko, however, it also becomes clear that Junko’s spirited resistance might be able change the way he sees the responsibilities and aspirations of the women of his generation. In this way, Hoshikawa serves as a representative of a society that is still primarily dominated by phallocentric interests. He’s scary, and his behavior is obviously psychologically unhealthy, but he can be persuaded to change by a woman smart enough and tough enough to take him on, even if she’s coming from a position of relative disadvantage. The sort of “he can change” mentality Junko comes to embrace is presented as being just as dangerous in the fictional world of the manga as it is in real life, but the alternative – “he will never change” – would be a bleak prognosis on the sort of patriarchal mentality Hoshikawa represents. The possibility that Hoshikawa can change himself as he learns that women are people too (gasp!) is an element of social optimism that serves as an emollient to the seemingly misogynistic sexual drama of the manga.

Two other female employees at Junko’s workplace, Yamabuchi Momoe and Mōri Masako, act as counterpoints to Junko’s situation by providing different attitudes towards employment, love, and marriage.

Along with Junko, Momoe is one of the most professional and sought after instructors at the conversation school, but she has a reputation for being standoffish and emotionally chilly. Although she’s all business in the office, she secretly loves yaoi manga. When Arthur Lange, a blond-haired foreign instructor from Britain, discovers Momoe’s hidden interests, he uses the threat of revealing her identity as a fujoshi to her boss to blackmail her into a relationship. Although Momoe enjoys fantasies of attractive, foreign-looking men being sexually aggressive and emotionally manipulative, the enactment of her fantasy is much more unpleasant in real life than it is in the pages of yaoi manga. Momoe is older than Arthur, but she has never had any romantic experience, and she constantly second-guesses her reactions to his teasing and bullying. She therefore often finds herself in the position of wondering how a woman her age should behave towards men, even though she wants nothing to do with them.

Masako, a receptionist at the English conversation school where Junko and Momoe teach, is a recent college graduate who, more than anything, wants to settle down with a boyfriend and become a housewife. Her coworkers tease her by calling her “Zexy,” a nickname taken from the title of a wedding and bridal magazine. Since Masako is attractive and intelligent, her standards for a partner are high, and she can’t find anyone her own age who meets them. Unfortunately, having cultivated an attitude of flirtatious approachability, she finds herself the constant target of unwanted male attention, especially in the form of sexual harassment from middle-aged men.

Junko’s English conversation school is thus a microcosm of Japanese society staffed by different women with different expectations, goals, and challenges concerning their futures. Although the manga focuses on its three main female characters, the male characters are also allowed enough interiority for the reader to see them working, talking to each other, and thinking about their own dreams and romantic problems. All of these characters work at cross purposes because of the artificial drama created by the manga artist, but their attitudes and emotional conflicts ring true to real social expectations and gender roles.

From Five to Nine is a fascinating exploration of contemporary Japan with enough intersecting plot lines, character development, and thematic subtlety to keep even the most demanding readers engaged. The obi bands around the manga covers tout the series as “a Tokyo version of Sex and the City,” and that should be recommendation enough for anyone seeking a fast-paced, hormone-fueled examination of gender roles in the twenty-first century.

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