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.

In Defense of Fujoshi

Content warning for discussion of rape fantasies, illustrations of penises, and strong irony regarding sensitive topics.

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I’m really serious about the content warning.
This essay is potentially triggering and extremely NSFW.

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At the Toronto Comic Arts Festival last weekend, Picturebox announced their plan to publish a bara manga anthology titled Massive. This news has been met with congratulations from all corners of English-language manga fandom, which is fantastic, because congratulations are in order.

What this excitement has occasionally been accompanied by, however, are snide comments about BL manga. To summarize and simplify these comments:

Male sexuality is BEAUTIFUL.
Female sexuality is GROSS.

Pornography drawn by men is ART.
Pornography drawn by women is TRASH.

Male sexual fetishes are EXCITING AND REVOLUTIONARY.
Female sexual fetishes are DESTROYING FEMINISM AND/OR LGBT RIGHTS FOREVER.

In other words:

Bara manga is GOOD.
BL manga is BAD.

This sort of mentality is often accompanied by essentializing statements such as:

All bara manga is AUTHENTIC.
All BL manga is HOMOPHOBIC.

The idea behind the above sentiment seems to be that, while all bara manga is always, by its very nature, an accurate depiction of the realities of the gay male lifestyle (note that there is apparently only one gay male lifestyle), BL manga, because it is always drawn by straight women, cannot accurately depict the concerns of gay men.

Okay, so if bara manga is always an accurate depiction of the gay male lifestyle…

Tagame Gengoroh - Standing Ovations

…then Tagame Gengorō’s one-shot manga “Standing Ovations” (pictured above), which is about a boxer who is drugged and forced to become a slave and repeatedly raped in front of a live audience, is apparently an accurate representation of the reality of what it means to be a gay man.

In another of Tagame’s stories…

Tagame Gengoroh - Arena

…titled “Arena” (pictured above), a boxer is drugged and forced to become a slave and repeatedly raped in front of a live audience. Except he’s eventually chemically lobotomized, and he ends up loving the rape, so it’s not really rape anymore!

Wow. I had no idea that all gay men everywhere in the world are either attending or participating in these sorts of rape battles.

This makes me wonder about bisexual men, or straight men who participate in group sex. Do those guys have their own separate rape battles, or are they just not invited to the rape battles? What about transgender men? Do they still get to go to the rape battles? And what about the gay men who aren’t interested in rape battles? Do they still get to be gay? Or am I just being a silly vagina-head by assuming that all gay men are not all totally alike?

But wait! It turns out that Tagame also wrote stories that were published in BL magazines like June, as well as magazines that have a balanced male/female readership, such as Kinniku otoko:

“I wrote ‘Hairy Oracle’ knowing that half of the readers were going to be women, so I tried to include some elements of romance and lightheartedness,” explains Tagame. “When I write for gay men’s magazines, it’s primarily about the hero’s initiative and interiority. When I know that women are also going to be reading it… they’re more interested in seeing actual relationships and coupling. So that’s a big difference when I go for writing for one or the other.”

Wait… So Tagame Gengorō has written BL manga… And BL manga is not authentic, because it’s all written by straight women… Which means that Tagame Gengorō is a straight woman?

My head just exploded.

Anyway, let’s consider the sick fantasies women have about gay men…

Kagurazaka Hanko - Hitotsu yane

…like gay men in monogamous relationships raising children.

SO GROSS.

The really terrible thing about these twisted women is that they’re not content with stand-alone BL manga; they also have to get their dirty lady cooties on mainstream media as well. For example, Azuma Kiyohiko’s series Yotsuba to, which manga critic Kamiya Kōsetsu has called an “eternal summer vacation” meant to provide adult men with an escape from the real world, is a huge hit with adult women, who are attracted to the role-reversal of a single father raising a child and the strong friendships between the female characters. When these women get their filthy lady hands on the manga…

Ookina hanayasan

…they write dōjinshi fanzines that turn the escapist fantasy of the original manga into a serious exploration of adult male gay relationships and the social constraints against two men raising a child in Japan.

HOW DISGUSTING.

I am one hundred percent certain that it’s entirely possible to use different examples and thereby demonstrate how bara manga is not all about bondage and rape fetishes (it totally isn’t) and how some BL manga is nothing more than shallow, disposable pornography that conflates homosexuality with sexual deviance (some of it totally is). There is a great deal of porn in the world, and there is more than enough to go around. The point I’m trying to make here is that there is a wide variation in both bara and BL manga, and it’s useless to make absolute statements about the people who read and write manga belonging to either category.

According to Dan Savage, author of The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, gay men can be kinky and enjoy porn and raise children in stable families. In other words, gay men can have sexual fantasies and still be “normal” people; it’s not an issue of either/or.

So what about fujoshi, the women who read and write BL manga?

Here is a common conception of fujoshi:

Fujoshi Stereotype

The above image may seem like a caricature, but many critics have extremely uncharitable opinions of women who read manga.

In his Neo review of the BL manga periodical Dear+, Jonathan Clements mocks the magazine’s readers, saying, “one imagines an audience of shelf-stackers, burger-flippers and NEETS, smiling dreamily at the thought of a world where everyone can wear, and afford, posh clothes, and gets to sit in an office all day thinking of ways to sell perfume to people like them.” In other words, the women who read Dear+ are useless, lazy slackers who can’t get real jobs but like to fantasize about what a high-powered professional life in the creative industry is like through the bodies of the men who have these jobs in the real world. Right. Let’s put aside the realities of the professional world in Japan, where men do in fact hold jobs women are strongly discouraged from attaining, and assume that the glass ceiling exists because women are too wrapped up in the fantasies of BL manga to be functional adults. Obviously.

Clements concludes his essay with the argument that BL contains elements of homophobia:

Dear Plus follows a format familiar to us from other magazines in the boys’-love genre, running the gamut of possible relationships in a single issue from chaste adoration to hardcore sex. But as noted in earlier Manga Snapshot columns on boys’ love, sometimes one detects that oddest of undertones, an arguably anti-gay assertion that all of this man-on-man action is merely a phase, and that what these lonely boys are really waiting for is the right girl to come along. In other words, these men are only snogging each other because the Reader hasn’t met them yet.

This is, we might say, another appropriation from the mainstream world, where myriads of lonely manga boys have suddenly received the girl of their dreams by some fiat of the fates, in which she drops out of the sky, appears in his wardrobe, or otherwise manifests through deeply unlikely means. In denying, however subtly, the desire of men who truly love men, Dear Plus suggests its true colors as a publication that is really aimed at lonely, heterosexual girls.

To summarize, all of these BL manga readers are terribly lonely (maybe because they’re such losers), and all they really want is a man of their very own. That sounds like an extreme projection of male heterosexuality to me, but it’s not as if Clements is the first man in the world to state that girls just wanna have cock.

In any case, it’s bizarre to me that Clements would identify fujoshi as man-hungry, lonely women, especially since the vast majority of scholarship on these women identifies them as participating in highly active homosocial communities. For example, in her monograph Fujoshika suru sekai, Sugiura Yumiko argues that the reason Ikebukuro became a fujoshi paradise (as opposed to somewhere like Nakano or Kichijōji) is because it’s a centrally located area that’s a convenient place for women to meet each other. In Ikebukuro, women can shop for both clothes and dōjinshi and then meet up with friends afterwards to have coffee in the cute and trendy cafes that dot the neighborhood. These women were early adapters to social networking sites like Mixi and Twitter, which they use to organize casual meetups. In fact, there’s a trend of fujoshi using Skype and Google Hangouts to talk to one another while and immediately after their favorite shows air live in the evening. It’s not that these women don’t have husbands and boyfriends, but rather that they also have female friends with whom they share their interests and hobbies.

Slash and BL fan communities in the West are highly social as well, with friends often forming offline clubs and art circles to share and promote their hobbies. In the vast majority of these communities, straight and gay men are totally welcome; and, in the artist alleys of American (and Canadian! and British! and French!) anime conventions, one is just as likely to see boys both in front of and behind the tables of artist collectives selling homegrown BL manga and fanzines. In some of the more commercially successful Western BL comics, such as the erotic comedy Teahouse, one can even spot the mention of the artists’ husbands (and partners) on the acknowledgements pages.

I am not saying that everyone who reads and writes BL manga is female, straight, and cisgender. That’s a common assumption, but it’s not true. Even if it were true, however, it would not be an excuse for the misogyny that pervades opinions about manga not explicitly targeted at men.

So seriously guys? Cut that shit out.

People who read bara manga are okay.
People who read BL manga are okay.

Maybe you personally prefer one over the other. That’s okay too.

Non-normative sexualities are okay, and other people’s fantasies are okay, and there doesn’t need to be some sort of weird war on the internet over whose gender is the most “authentic.” Everyone is perfectly free to mock the ridiculousness of both bara tropes and BL tropes until global warming renders such trivialities inconsequential, but please take a moment to consider whether writing homophobic and misogynistic things about people who read comics is really the most productive exercise of social justice before you waste your time trying to convince women that girls are yucky.

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.

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….

Solanin

Solanin

Title: solanin
Japanese Title: ソラニン
Author: Asano Inio (浅野いにお)
Translator: JN Productions
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 428

Is manga literature? In some cases, like Urasawa Naoki’s Monster or 20th Century Boys, one could make a very strong positive argument. Some manga, however, like Bleach or Yuzawa Ai’s Nana series, are nothing more than once promising but now over-bloated cash cows. On the other hand, many of my favorite manga, like Azuma Kiyohiko’s Yotsuba&!, are not literature simply because they are masterpieces of a completely different art form.

But Asano Inio’s 420 page work Solanin is literature, no doubt about it. Like many Japanese narratives, it is driven not so much by plot as by character development and a fascination with the beauty of everyday life, which sounds like a Hallmark greeting card but is actually quite gritty and satisfying. Unlike a great deal of manga, Solanin deals with the problems of Japanese young people who are not sailor-suited schoolgirls and have already passed through their fun and fancy-free college years. In other words, the protagonists of Solanin have already grown up, or at least are trying to. I suppose that, in this way, Solanin is like a more focused and mature version of Umino Chika’s popular shōjo manga Honey and Clover, which chronicles the struggles and heartbreaks of a group of friends who have just graduated from art school.

As I said, there isn’t much to discuss in terms of plot (although there are some fairly gut-wrenching twists in the story), but the basic premise of the manga is that the protagonist, Mieko, who has just graduated from college and moved in with her boyfriend, has gotten sick of her boring office job and creepy boss and decided to quit working for a few months. During this time, she focuses on her friends and boyfriend, who had formed a rock band together in college. Mieko wants her guitarist boyfriend Naruo, who also feels suffocated at work, to get the band back together and be more serious about his music and his dreams, which drives the story forward but causes tension between the two. What ends up happening is way beyond what the characters – or the readers – suspect. The ending of the manga isn’t happy, necessarily, but it is fulfilling.

Although the focus of the narrative is on Mieko, occasionally chapters will be told from the point of view of another character, like Mieko and Naruo’s friends Rip (the drummer) and Kato (the bassist). These chapters rarely have anything to do with the main story but are still interesting, especially in how they highlight different aspects of the group dynamic within the circle of friends. The alternate narrative chapters also provide the majority of the manga’s comic relief, which is actually quite funny in a quiet sort of way.

Although the characters and narrative style alone make Solanin worth reading, what really made me pick up this book and buy it was the artwork. The character designs, though simple, are very appealing. I also feel that, within the limits of Asano’s personal style, they are realistic in the way they depict different body types and facial expressions. The background art is wonderfully realistic, which is extraordinary when you realize how much of it there is. Unlike most manga, which only provide a panel of background art every page or two, Solanin is filled with beautiful drawings of the scenery and landscape of the Tokyo suburbs. Even if you think Solanin’s story is just basic Banana Yoshimoto style angsty emo crap (although, in my mind, it never gets that bad), the artwork makes the whole thing worthwhile. Really, it’s gorgeous.

So, although the cover isn’t that appealing, and although the $17.99 price tag is pretty hefty, I can’t recommend this book enough. I’m really happy I gave it a chance, despite my misgivings.

Just to give a feel for the art style, I’ll post some images from the manga. I apologize for the poor scanning quality…

Solanin Page 1

Solanin Page 2