Bunny Drop

Title: Bunny Drop
Japanese Title: うさぎドロップ (Usagi doroppu)
Artist: Unita Yumi (宇仁田 ゆみ)
Serialization: 2005-2011 (Japan)
Japanese Publisher: Shōgakukan
American Publisher: Yen Press
Pages (per volume): 200

This review contains mild spoilers for the completed series.

Towards the end of October I presented a conference paper about Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth. My argument was that the “male gaze” should not be taken for granted in the study of such manga, and that an awareness of an active “female gaze” can change the way we understand contemporary Japanese popular culture. For example, while the male gaze sees infantilized sex objects in Sailor Moon, the female gazes sees icons of feminist empowerment. While a male gaze sees an undifferentiated slurry of popular “magical girl” tropes in Magic Knight Rayearth, a female gaze sees misogynistic narrative cycles being forcibly broken by the tragic end of the series. At the end of my presentation, I received a question that caught me off guard: Feminist empowerment in the realm of fantasy manga is all well and good, but what effect do these manga have on the real world?

Many feminist bloggers, journalists, and scholars of popular media have chronicled the negative impact popular media has on girls and young women. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, for instance, Peggy Orenstein (the author of Schoolgirls) connects the rising rates of depression and eating disorders in pre-adolescent girls with stories marketed to girls and the associated conflation of self-objectification with a perceived sense of empowerment. If emotional investment in media and the resulting internalization of its underlying ideology can have a negative impact on the real lives of girls and the women they become, wouldn’t it also stand to reason that a positive impact might also be possible? Isn’t that why feminists fight for “strong female characters” and alternative literary, cinematic, and historical canons?

It seems to me that the real issue at stake here is not whether manga affects the psychology of its younger readers (which it most undoubtedly does), but whether it has the same capacity for social commentary and the same effectiveness as a catalyst for social change as “real” literature. It’s difficult (but far from impossible) to argue that a glam-and-glitter “monster of the week” story such as that which characterizes the opening volumes of the Sailor Moon manga is literature, especially when compared to massive, era-defining novels such as The Right Stuff and Freedom. That being said, I believe that manga does have the same power that literature does to allow its readers to experience social and political issues from different perspectives on both a visceral and an intellectual level.

This is quite a long preface for Unita Yumi’s nine-volume series Bunny Drop, which is one of the most striking and memorable manga I’ve read over the past three years. Bunny Drop is about Daikichi, a single man in his thirties, and Rin, the six-year-old girl he adopts. The first four volumes in the series chronicle Daikichi’s deepening bond with Rin as he deals with the challenges of raising her; and, in the last five volumes, the focus of the story shifts to Rin as a first-year student in high school as she learns to negotiate the challenges of the adult world, such as how to handle her emotions towards her mother and towards Daikichi. Although this is a “slice of life” manga, it’s about as far from moe (the male-directed aesthetic and narrative mode of many slice of life stories such as K-On! and Sunshine Sketch) as you can get. Without being too adorable (or, at the other end of the spectrum, too cynical), Bunny Drop depicts the trials and rewards of raising a child – although the narrative tension of the series comes mainly from the trails.

The manga opens with the funeral of Daikichi’s grandfather and the introduction of a strange and sullen six-year-old girl lurking around his house. The child, Rin, is purported to be the grandfather’s love child, and no one in the family wants to take her in. While complaining about the expense and trouble of taking care of a kid, Daikaichi’s relatives squabble over who has to put up Rin until they can find an institution to take her off their hands. When Daikichi suggests that his mom adopt the child, she angrily retorts that he has no idea what sacrifices she had to make for the sake of him and his sister. Having observed that Rin’s silence is a result of her shyness and sensitivity as opposed to some mental deficiency and increasingly frustrated by the selfishness of his family, Daikichi suddenly proclaims that he will take Rin home with him. The open panel depicting Daikichi standing handsome in a black suit as Rin runs to him makes it seem as if everything will work out for the pair; but, on the last page of the first chapter, a decidedly un-cool Daikichi is woken by a sleepy-faced little creature proclaiming, “Hey, hey, Mister [ojisan], I’m hungry!” Daikichi comically snaps that he’s not an ojisan (a term literally meaning “uncle” that is used to address a middle-aged man) yet, and that such an expression would better suit Rin, who is technically his aunt. Along with this light humor, however, comes Daikichi’s sinking realization that he can no longer back out of the responsibilities with which his spur-of-the-moment decision has saddled him.

Although Bunny Drop maintains a fairly light tone throughout the first four volumes, as the first chapter of the series demonstrates, it deals with some heavy issues. Daikichi’s frustration with having to glue name tags on every tiny piece of Rin’s first grade math set is amusing, of course, but it also illustrates all of the nonsense Japanese parents have to deal with when their children start school (which is part of the reason why mothers drop out of the work force and limit themselves to only one child). Daikichi’s panic over the lack of suitable daycare options in the area surrounding his suburban neighborhood is presented as laughable, but his mildly exaggerated reactions attest to a very real sense of unease concerning the lack of choices available to parents in Japan. Over the course of the Rin’s childhood, Daikichi makes friends with other parents, such as a working father, a working mother, a stay-at-home dad, and a single mother struggling to raise her son while keeping both feet on the corporate ladder. Daikichi, who himself has to request a demotion to a non-overtime position in order to be able to pick up Rin from daycare on time, swaps war stories, survival strategies, and anecdotes of small victories with these other parents.

Meanwhile, despite growing up in a non-traditional family, Rin develops into a capable and emotionally mature young woman. The fifth volume jumps to Rin as a teenager, and the reader is invited to understand her story not only from Daikichi’s perspective but also from her own. Rin has matriculated into the same high school as Kōki, her childhood friend from daycare. Although Rin has done fine in a single-parent household, Kōki, who has been raised by a single mother, has had problems. These problems, which involve dating a much older woman while still in middle school, are alluded to in terms of their lingering effect on Rin and Daikichi, who have become like a second family for Kōki. In the later volumes of Bunny Drop, Rin (and, by extension, Daikichi) must deal with Kōki’s ex-girlfriend, an ambitious college girl on her own who isn’t interested in long-term relationships. Meanwhile, Rin becomes curious about the mother who abandoned her, eventually meeting her and learning that she was a single mother who often left Rin with Daikichi’s grandfather, for whom she worked as a housekeeper, in order to pursue her dream of becoming a manga artist. Rin herself has already begun to think about her own future and is strongly considering applying to a college within commuting distance so that she will be able to stay home and take care of Daikichi as he ages.

The issues Bunny Drop tackles are thus the issues the manga’s readership – presumably women in their late teens and early twenties – must confront as they begin to make choices about the directions their lives will take. Is it necessary to get married? What does it mean to have a child? Is it possible to stay at your job even after you marry and have children? If your career is important to you, should you even have children? What preparations do you need to make in order to care for your parents? Child care, elder care, and how young women negotiate their education and careers – these are the themes of Bunny Drop, and the manga explores these themes through a diverse cast of fully developed characters.

The social observation and commentary of Bunny Drop is subtle and doesn’t immediately engage the reader at the same level as the interesting characters and compelling story, but it really jumps out when the manga is compared to other manga with similar premises, such as Azuma Kiyohiko’s Yotsuba&! or Unita’s earlier Yonin-gurashi (which might be translated as “Family of Four”). Both of these manga, which also contain stories involving young children, are highly episodic in nature and display on the lighter side of caring for a child. In the world of these manga, children are always adorable all the time, and the only problems their guardians face are easily resolved within the span of a few pages. Neither the children nor their parents ever get old, and money (or work) is never an issue. Isn’t it wonderful to be a parent, these manga seem to suggest, or even, Isn’t it wonderful to be a child. In contrast, Bunny Drop employs a degree of realism that never allows the reader to escape into a comforting fantasy that will disappear as soon as she closes the manga. The awkward ending of the series, which abandons this level of realism and retreats into romance tropes common to both manga and mainstream literature, might even be read as a critique of fantasies that demand happy endings, or even of a society that demands that its women be wedded to an outdated and increasingly dysfunctional family system.

To answer the question posed at the beginning of this essay, then, I am sure that manga artists do not have the same ability to shape legal and political discourse as do lawyers, judges, politicians, bureaucrats, and the journalists and professors who publish in influential opinion magazines. However, as reading through periodicals like Aera and Chūōkōron (and made-for-export material like Japan Echo and Reimagining Japan) has convinced me, many of the major social issues currently facing Japan, such as a shrinking workforce, a low birthrate, and an aging population, directly concern women and the choices they make in their lives. Despite this, young women in the demographic represented by the readership of manga like Bunny Drop have little access to participation in public realms of political and legal discourse. It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that they will create their own realms of discourse to which they do have access. Becoming a politician takes money and connections, but presumably anyone can become a manga artist, or at least submit a postcard to Feel Young magazine expressing her opinions regarding Bunny Drop.

An individual’s consciousness of social issues is shaped by many realms of discourse, and it makes sense that young women would be more comfortable with realms of discourse from which they do not feel excluded. A manga like Bunny Drop, which examines important issues that pertain directly to its readership, should thus be considered a text worthy of being read and studied and even enjoyed. If Bunny Drop is not serious literature, then it at least performs many of the functions of serious literature through its use of narrative devices similar to those used by serious literature. A pastel-covered graphic narrative like Bunny Drop may not be a catalyst for social change, but it certainly does serve as a mirror in which young women (and men) can scrutinize their lives, the limitations imposed on them, and the choices available to them.

If you haven’t started reading this manga yet, I highly recommend it.

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime

Title: Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime
Japanese Title: “文学少女”と死にたがりの道化 (“Bungaku Shōjo” to shinitagari no piero)
Author: Nomura Mizuki (野村 美月)
Illustrator: Takeoka Miho (竹岡 美穂)
Translator: Karen McGillicuddy
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 183

Oh, Yen Press. Oh, how I love you; oh, how I hate you.

I love the money and effort you put into publishing your books. I love that you took a chance on titles like Black Butler and succeeded remarkably. I love that you turned garbage like Maximum Ride and Cirque du Freak into readable and artistically beautiful graphic novels. I love that you found room in your capitalistic heart for series like Bunny Drop and One Fine Day. I love how you don’t put Japanese manga-ka on a pedestal but instead give equal attention to Korean and American artists. I hate that you stopped publishing the paper-and-ink version of your monthly magazine. I hate that I can only access the digital version from your website even after I pay for it. I hate that you sent cease-and-desist orders to scanlation sites but then decided to launch your digital titles exclusively on the most expensive e-reader on the market.

I am similarly conflicted about the light novels Yen Press has released. I enjoyed Spice & Wolf, even if it was a bit bland (the most interesting bits were the watered-down speculations on preindustrial economies, if that gives you any idea how clumsy the characterization was). Kieli had an intriguing premise and was set in a fun dystopic fantasy world but was riddled with stereotypes and awkward dialog. Worst of all, the nails-on-a-chalkboard banality of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya made me despite not only Tanigawa Nagaru but the entire genre of light novels. So, when Nomura Mizuki’s Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime was released last July, I decided to give it a pass. I felt justified in my decision after reading the opening epigraph:

Mine has been a life of shame. I’m like the one black sheep born into a pure white flock. Unable to enjoy the things my peers enjoyed, unable to grieve the things they grieved, unable to eat the things they ate – being born an ignoble black sheep, I didn’t understand the things my friends found pleasant, such as love, kindness, and

Actually, let’s just leave it at that. There’s no need to copy the full paragraph. Glistening tears leaving black ebony trails of eyeliner down a tragic alabaster face – you get the picture. Maybe I would be more patient with such things if I were seventeen; but I’m ten years past seventeen and not quite as intrigued by alienated narcissism as perhaps I once was, regardless if said narcissism is a deliberate homage to Dazai Osamu. And so it was that Book Girl fell off my radar.

What made me leave my desk and walk straight to Borders to pick up a copy was Erica Friedman’s glowing review of the second book in the series, Book Girl and the Famished Spirit, over on Okazu. If the series is that good, why shouldn’t I read it immediately? And so I did. Suicidal Mime was short and engaging enough for me to read from cover to cover the very evening I bought it, and I did indeed enjoy the experience.

The “book girl” of the title is Amano Tohko, who seems to be an ordinary high school student save for the fact that, instead of food, she consumes the written word. She is the president of her prestigious high school’s book club, the only other member being Inoue Konoha, whom Tohko has drafted to write short, impromptu snacks for her. Tohko’s secret is that she quite literally eats paper with stories written on it, and Konoha’s secret is that he once wrote a bestselling novel under the name of his former girlfriend, who had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of her middle school in front of him. Konoha is taciturn but good-natured, and Tohko is brash but unflaggingly cheerful. The dynamic between these two characters is typical (one might almost say stereotypical) of the genre of Japanese high school comedy, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

The book is plot-driven instead of character-driven, though, and the plot is set in motion with the introduction of Takeda Chia, who asks Konoha to write a series of love letters for her. The recipient of these letters is Kataoka Shuji, an upperclassman on the archery team. As Konoha soon discovers, however, Shuji doesn’t exist. Or, at least, not anymore – he supposedly committed suicide ten years ago, but a letter found inside an old copy of Dazai Osamu’s No Longer Human hints that there might have been more to his death than suicide. The story is thus propelled by three intertwined mysteries. Who was Kataoka Shuji? How did he die? What stake does Chia have in the matter? Playing the role of Sherlock, Tohko knows more than she lets on but sends Konoha on several fetch quests to discover concrete clues.

These clues seem unconnected at first; and, unfortunately, they tend to remain unconnected towards the end of the book, when everything wraps up so quickly that I was left wondering what had just happened. It turns out that Dazai Osamu is not the only sociopath in the story; literally everyone is a black sheep who has lived a life of shame. This sudden plot development boggled my mind, and I ended up not really caring about any of the inexplicably psychologically damaged characters. Perhaps this makes me a sociopath, but, in my defense, the characterization is rather weak. For example, Tohko is introduced to the reader in this way:

Tohko was perched on a metal folding chair, her knees pulled up to her chest. It wasn’t a very modest way for her to sit. Her pleated skirt was almost wide open – but not quite. If she moved her legs even slightly she would be flashing me.

This is how Chia is introduced:

A girl was splayed out on the floor, her skirt flipped up in her fall, exposing her bear-print underwear for all to see. It occurred to me that my little sister had the exact same pair of underwear, but she was only just starting elementary school.

In other words, the characterization depends fairly heavily on anime tropes, which are emphasized and reinforced by the illustrations:

To make a short story even shorter, then, Book Girl and the Suicidal Meme is a plot-driven novel with a ridiculous and poorly paced plot populated by characters that are little more than amalgamations of tropes culled from the otaku database. Despite this (or perhaps because of this), the book is a fun read. It’s short, and it moves quickly. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I imagine how it would be perfect for a younger audience. If nothing else, Tohko’s synaesthetic responses to literature are kind of cute:

“Mmmm, so good. Fitzgerald has a really snazzy flavor. I feel as if flamboyance, glory, and passion are dancing a waltz in my mouth, like I’m eating glittering caviar with champagne at a party. When I bite into it, its delicate skin pops, and a fragment of liquid spills into my mouth.”

As you can probably tell from the above passage, the touch of the translator is feather-light, so reading Book Girl feels really no different than reading “normal” (ie, contemporary American) young adult fiction, save for the eight full-color pages of illustration at the beginning. At $8.99, the book is priced like normal young adult fiction as well, so it’s well worth picking up and breezing through for anyone interested in light novels, young adult fiction, or anime and manga in general. I’m definitely going to order the second volume of the series before my next plane ride. The Famished Spirit is about sixty pages longer than The Suicidal Mime, so hopefully there will be more room for plot and character development.

Another mystery-flavored light novel I read recently was the first volume of Sakuraba Kazuki’s Gosick series, which is published by Tokyopop and still (as of this writing) available at a discount through Right Stuf. Like Book Girl (and many of Doyle’s original stories), Gosick employs a Todorovian element of fantasy in that the reader never quite knows if the cause of the story’s improbable events is supernatural in origin. The innocence of the beautiful young female Holmes-equivalent can be grating at times (as is that of Tohko), and there were times I suspected that her “astronomical genius” was only given to her by the author to make her a more desirable prize for the male reader-stand-in protagonist; but, if you can get around that, the first volume of Gosick is an enjoyable mystery novel. The Gosick anime series is currently streaming on Crunchyroll, and it’s worth briefly checking out if only for its gorgeous Mucha-inspired art nouveau opening sequence.

Yotsubato!

Title: よつばと!(Yotsuba to)
Artist: あずまきよひこ (Azuma Kiyohiko)
Publication Year: 2003 (Volume 1) – 2009 (Volume 9)
Publisher: 電撃コミックス (Dengeki Comics)
Pages: 225 (per volume)

Let me get this out of the way first: Yotsubato! has no story. It is not “about” anything. There is no point. It does not go anywhere. The manga could be classified as falling within the genre of comedy, but it doesn’t really try to be funny. The reader never really learns anything about the characters, and the relationships between the characters show almost no development. Nothing important or exciting happens.

Let me also get this out of the way: Yotsubato! is one of my favorite manga in the whole wide world.

I have been fond of Azuma Kiyohiko’s four-panel manga Azumanga Daioh ever since the translation was released in America in 2002. I also enjoyed the anime based on said manga. When defunct American manga publisher ADV Manga started releasing translations of Yotsubato!, Azuma’s new project following the completion of Azumanga Daioh, I picked up the first volume immediately. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed. It wasn’t a fun manga to read. I didn’t get it. The dialog was translated in a way that was supposed to be wacky and zany, but I didn’t think the manga itself was that funny. The art was a little weird, too. A year later, in 2007, I went to Japan to find Yotsubato! featured prominently at almost every major bookstore in Tokyo and Yokohama – most memorably at the Tsutaya in Shibuya, which had an entire wall devoted to Yotsuba paraphernalia. The cover of the Japanese publication of the manga was approximately five hundred times more appealing than the cover of the translation, so I picked up a copy. While reading it on the train home, I fell in love.

Yotsubato! follows the daily life of a five-year-old girl named Yotsuba. Having been orphaned on an island somewhere outside of Japan (the circumstances are never made clear to the reader), Yotsuba has been taken in by a man named Koiwai, who seems to be in his late twenties or early thirties and makes his living as a translator. At the beginning of the first volume of the manga, Yotsuba and her adopted father move into a new house in the suburbs of a city assisted by Koiwai’s friend Jumbo, a florist with a preference for Hawaiian shirts whose name reflects his comically enormous stature. After moving in, Yotsuba and Koiwai (and Jumbo, who visits from time to time) become friends with the family living next door, which consists of a mother, a daughter in college, a daughter in high school, and a daughter a year or two older than Yotsuba (the father of the family never makes an appearance). Although other friends of Koiwai and the next-door neighbors are occasionally introduced, Yotsubato! mainly revolves around this core set of characters and their interactions. The manga moves slowly from day to day. Over the course of nine volumes, its leisurely pace has taken it from the middle of summer to the very beginning of fall.

What I love about this manga is this very slowness. I wouldn’t describe this work as “contemplative,” however; Yotsuba herself is very curious and energetic, and her adopted father is something of a character as well. There is nothing boring about the manga, but its focus on the mundane allows the reader to take a step back from his or her own presumably hectic life and enjoy an endless summer full of daytrip adventures and small discoveries. This is not to say that Yotsubato! somehow resembles something like My Neighbor Totoro. The manga is written from an adult perspective, and the reader is constantly encouraged to identify with the people who surround Yotsuba rather than with the girl herself. The occasional jokes that the manga makes are sophisticated, and the adult speech and relationships are not sanitized or downplayed.

The attention to detail expressed in every aspect of the manga finds its most visible outlet in its gorgeous artwork. As I noticed when I first read the manga in America, it takes Azuma several chapters to settle on his character designs, which are drawn in his unique style. The rest of the visual realm, however, is drawn in an almost photorealistic way, from the tiniest detail of the interior architecture of Yotsuba’s house to the products lining the shelves of a neighborhood convenience store. Aside from the shade of Yotsuba’s unique hair, there is almost no screen tone used in the manga; everything is conveyed in understated ink work, which miraculously never clutters the page or busies the panels. The slightly cartoonish characters provide a pleasing contrast to this sort of detailed background. I feel like the background art in this manga captures the essence of a Japanese suburb far away from Tokyo; so, even while I was reading this manga in Yokohama, it made me feel nostalgic for living in Japan.

I suppose you could say that I enjoy this manga because of its pace, its narrative tone, and its art. I’m not really sure, though, what makes Yotsubato! different from any other “slice of life” manga, but it is different. I have said before that I think manga can be considered literature, but Yotsubato! is not literature. It is a masterwork of an entirely different medium of artistic expression. Really, I think Yotsubato! stands alongside the works of Urasawa Naoki and Asano Inio as an exemplar of what manga is capable of.

Although I am a great believer in translation, I feel that Yotsubato! is much more enjoyable in the original Japanese. Thankfully, even beginning students of Japanese should not find the dialog in the manga to be prohibitively difficult. For those readers who have no Japanese language background, however, a new English translation of the manga is currently being published under the title of “Yotsuba&!” by Yen Press.

I think the following two pages demonstrate the style of the manga. In the middle of a late summer typhoon, Yotsuba runs into the storm to warn her next door neighbors to be careful. In her haste, she forgets her umbrella, so her adopted father runs after her to give it to her. Upon catching up with her, he finds her already drenched, so….