Continuing my theme of blogging about stuff that isn’t writing and isn’t prose books (what’s wrong with me, really) I’m gonna write about… manga. And I know that the world is ending and probably this seems like the most wrong time for a post on manga, or anything that isn’t politics. But self-care is also important. We can’t solve anything if we are curled in a ball on the floor, despairing. Which has been my natural state for the last month or so and I have been absolutely no good to anyone. And we need occasional lightness. We need reminders for why we need to keep going. So. A post on manga.
Manga seems to be, at least from what I’ve encountered, the least-favorable medium. I meet a lot of people who are into comics, and a lot of people who are into anime, but manga always gets left behind. Which I do get—reading manga requires, honestly, a LOT of work. Not because of the manga itself, but because getting English copies, waiting for translations, hoping series don’t get dropped or that publishers don’t go out of business, is both ridiculously expensive and incredibly time consuming. There was a period of time where getting manga volumes, and keeping track of what I’d read, and what was coming out, and which storyline was which, felt more like a full time job than my full time job.
But I love manga, so I’ve always felt it was worth it. And although I am absolutely enamored with anime, manga is definitely my medium of choice between the two. It was… formative, for me. I started reading it when I was about 14, and for maybe ten years, it was a constant. It was manga that showed me who I was and what I was interested in and who I wanted to be (along with YA and SFF books, but manga was always there.) It’s had a huge influence on my writing—it’s how I learned how to write a full length novel—in episodes and bits and pieces. It’s influenced the folklore and fairytales I put in my fantasy. It’s an important part of the basis for how I talk about emotions.
Despite all that, I did stop reading manga for quite a few years. But the other day I decided I needed to step away, just a bit, from the romance genre, to clear my head. And then I realized that, actually, I didn’t want to read any prose at all. So I went to the library and got manga.
I picked up a bunch of new series and I’m also thinking to finish the hideously long list of half-finished series I gave up on several years back. So I’ll write a bit about them here. I have no idea how often or how much. Until I want to stop, I guess. Here we go.
Barakamon by Satsuki Yoshino
I love Barakamon for about a billion reasons. I first saw the anime for this (I think it’s maybe 11 episodes, and well worth watching) and it was magical. I’d never seen anything talk about creativity in a way that felt so startlingly, honestly true.
The main character of the series, Handa, is a calligrapher who has been told his work is lacking. He’s not winning competitions and he’s not ‘inspired.’ So he’s shipped off to a very rural island, where he’s supposed to be able to get some peace to work on his technique. Which he does. But he also ends up making friends with everyone there and having a lot of mundane but new-to-him adventures. The story is heartfelt, hilarious, at times ridiculous and, mostly, incredibly touching in the way it speaks about life and creativity and how those things tie together. And how illusive that feeling of creating something without fear or pressure, with joy, is. But there is so much joy in Handa’s calligraphy, when he lets that happen.
Whenever I read this manga (and I really enjoy the fact that you can pick it up and read a few pages or a volume whenever and don’t have to worry too much about getting lost. I’m on volume seven and looking forward to the rest, but I think the pacing almost works better when they’re spread out a bit.) Anyway, whenever I read this, I feel… centered, in a way. Like, ‘Oh, right, other people struggle with creativity and making your mind work the way you want it to, also.’ That’s validating in a way that I feel doesn’t always get the in-depth look it deserves.
There’s this one scene where Handa has been asked to paint the name of a boat on its side. The boat is pristine—a perfect, blank white canvas, and he’s terrified of messing it up. What if he drips paint? What if his calligraphy doesn’t come out right, or isn’t pretty enough, or bold enough, or the owner of the boat doesn’t like it? He’s paralyzed with that fear of the blank page.
But while he’s having a bit of a panic, one of the neighborhood children dips her hands into the black paint and splashes it all over that perfect boat side.
Handa’s horrified. But the kid did it so simply, as if there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. As if that blank page meant nothing but possibility. And this gives Handa the courage to do what he wants, and paint the boat name in the way he thinks is best. I think of that every time I get fear of the blank page. Which is a lot. I remember that the best thing to do is get my words all over it.
That’s why I love this manga.
The Demon Prince of Momochi House by Aya Shouoto
I guess the fact that I read and totally enjoy shojo manga is something I’m probably supposed to… be embarrassed about. Like it’s some sort of guilty pleasure or something. But I think guilty pleasures should probably simply be relabeled as pleasures, as long as they’re not hurting anyone, and I love shojo manga and that’s all there is to it.
Admittedly, I probably would not have gone out seeking a manga (or anything) called The Demon Prince. Whut. But, err. What I do… when I’m at the library… is pick all the number one volumes of manga off the shelf and bring them home. Without… really looking at titles or reading blurbs. Sometimes I look at covers, to get a feel for artwork, and this has a lovely cover. But. Yeah. All the number ones come with me.
Anyway, this was a series that I started by doing just that. I brought home the first and second volumes simply because they were there, and then went back to the library the next day to bring home every other volume they had.
Shojo is basically YA manga, geared specifically towards girls. Which I have mixed feelings about. I loved (and still do love) the fact that, when I was a teenager, there was this entire genre of manga that was just for me. Like the books were leaping off the shelf and saying ‘This will feature guys who usually aren’t absolute jerks! It will center female characters! The heroine will have friends she loves, and she’ll fall in love and it’ll be swoony. Overly dramatic and implausible things will be said, and probably she will eat a lot of cake!’ This was clearly a genre I was bound to fall in love with.
But as I got older, I started to notice that a lot of shojo manga… has a lot of sexism going on. Sometimes it’s overt, but a lot of the time it’s hidden a bit, so you can almost squint and miss it. Boys and girls are slotted into very definite rolls and spaces. Girls are cherished and protected… but this also means that they’re often considered weaker and basically smothered. Sex is generally thought of as a chore for women to go through. And there’s a fair bit of girl/girl bullying which… might sometimes be realistic, but is treated as normal and commonplace—‘Girls just act that way!—and that makes me very uncomfortable.
I hasten to add that, absolutely, not all shojo is like this. It’s just something to be aware of if you’re going to step into the genre as a whole. This series, for example, has some sexism going on, and the MC is considered as someone to be protected… but that’s mostly because she’s wandered into a situation she knows nothing about, and she keeps putting her foot in it. So it’s… it’s grain of salt, really. For me, it doesn’t cross the boundary where I’m uncomfortable. For others, it might.
Anyway, keeping all of that in mind, I really love The Demon Prince of Momochi House. It’s fantasy, and packed with Japanese folklore. The MC inherits a house, only to find it’s like a passageway to the spirit world, and it’s inhabited by a gatekeeper and his helpers. It reminds me a lot of Kamisama Kiss, another fantasy manga about a girl who ends up living with a bunch of yokai/ayakashi (these are like… sort of like demons and sort of like our western version of fairies. ) The plot in Demon Prince rambles a fair bit, but it works in this format—each character’s story is told separately, while still building on the main conflict (our MC is in love with someone who’s slowly becoming not quite human) and the romance. This lets you read 9+ volumes–which is what’s available in English right now–without getting bored. And I think the plot is handled a bit better here, even though I love Kamisama Kiss—the rambling always pulls back by the end of the volume, so I’m not left feeling lost by the time I get the next volume.
I also really love that the theme of the series seems to be, aside from all the very cool Japanese fairytale stuff, sweetness. Our MC (whose name I cannot remember for the life of me) is kind. She’s kind to the ayakashi she’s living with, and they all form a sort of family of choice. She’s kind to her friends, and she wants to help people. It’s just goodness and lightness and bad things happen but they’re solved by listening and trying to understand others. Which… maybe that in itself seems like a fairytale, or too sticky sweet for reality. But I don’t care because it just makes me feel so good to read it.
Erased by Kei Sanbe
I would have picked this up no matter what it was about because look at that cover. *swoons* Gosh, it’s so pretty. But the story itself is also fantastic. Satoru, the MC, is a struggling manga artist, whose life never seems to go right. Not only is he having job problems, but he has a hidden psychic ability—at crucial moments, he’ll get pulled a few minutes into the past, over and over, until he figures out what’s out of place, and fixes what could have been a tragedy. For example, the first time this happens, a truck driver has fallen asleep at the wheel, and the moment when the truck passes Satoru happens over and over until he realizes that the truck is about to hit a boy crossing the sidewalk.
But things go horribly wrong for Satoru when a series of events pulls him eighteen years into the past, and his task this time is to stop the murder of one of his classmates.
It’s so clever. I find time travel in fiction really fascinating because it’s SUCH a cool concept, and there are so many ways to play with it, but it’s incredibly difficult and I have almost never seen anyone do it in a foolproof way. I could think up maybe two examples where you can’t poke holes all over the time travel aspects of a given plot. And, granted, I’m only about half way through this series, but so far, this is handled exceptionally well.
The artwork is almost a bit old-school in style, but it’s straightforward and uncluttered. The story is incredibly compelling. The character development is excellent. Satoru is at once a thirty year old man, reliving his childhood and trying to right past mistakes, large and small, and a child, growing up, trying to do his best. And it’s well written and has such a lovely pace to it.
Things do get a bit… O___o in the second volume (volumes three and four.) There are some weird plot holes in the murder mystery, and some elements get added to the hints about the killer that I just felt were really unnecessary. So instead of time travel weak plot spots, we get weak spots in the mystery aspect. But overall, I’m still enjoying it, and looking forward to the next volume.
This is an ongoing series, and it looks like there’s already been a delay in publishing the next volumes, so only two omnibus editions are out, containing the first four volumes of a nine volume series. So I’m kind of… bummed I started this now because who knows how long we’ll have to wait for English editions. Oh well.
Kimi ni Todoke by Karuho Shiina
This series is from my Incredibly Long List of Manga Series I’ve Been Reading For Years But Haven’t Finished. But this one actually isn’t my fault because, as far as I know, it’s ongoing. And that’s one of the reasons that I feel sort of wishy-washy about this series.
On one hand, I love it. It has a ridiculous premise—the MC, Sawako, looks like the character from the horror movie The Ring (which… I had nightmares FOR YEARS after seeing that, and I assume the original Japanese version is even scarier. I know the manga was horrifying. So. And I seem to be incapable of being frightened by horror now. So that film ruined me, basically.) So she’s basically shunned by all of her high school classmates. Which seems implausible to me but, hey, I think I was probably shunned and shunned in return for far less. But this premise sets up a plausible and honestly heartfelt, tender, and lovely story about Sawako as she comes to know her classmates, makes friends, and starts dating.
And that’s the part I love about this manga—which is similar to many shojo manga. At its heart, it’s about friendship and kindness and listening to people and caring about people and following your dreams. Mushy, overly dramatic or overly fantastic or overly romantic things that are… often frowned upon in western media as not mature enough. But are, really, important and heartfelt and lovely. The romance mostly consists of handholding and hugs, but it’s no less intense or real for that. And the other characters all get their own storylines and loves and conflicts, and it’s balanced really well. It goes on for more than 20 volumes (it’s still going,) so there better be a few good side stories. And there are.
But that’s one of the biggest drawbacks to the series for me. This probably originally ran as a chapter at a time (and is still running this way), once a week, in a magazine. And as long as the story’s popular, the magazine will keep asking the artist to draw it. Which means that sometimes plot points get really, really weird. I know I raised my eyebrows a few times in this series, and I can’t remember exactly over what—it’s been years since I first started reading this, but I think there was something with a weird relationship with a side character… and rivalries… and I dunno, stuff that just didn’t sit right. And I also feel that, where I am right now, which is about… volume 24… is maybe the natural end of the series? But it keeps going past that because the series is still popular. I think that a lot of manga series overrun their natural ends due to this, so there are a ton of serialized manga out there that have weak endings because it’s just not right. Possibly that won’t happen here, of course. Maybe the author has a perfect ending in mind and we’re working our way there. I hope so.
Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata
I don’t have too much to say about Chi’s Sweet Home except that it’s lovely. I love animals, and people are always giving me books about animals and pets because they want to give me something that will interest me. And I always smile and nod and say thanks, and never, ever read the book, because animal books ALWAYS end with the animal dying some horrific yet noble death. Just. Why. NO.
Chi’s Sweet Home doesn’t end with death, though. And there isn’t any death. It’s sweet, it’s fluffy, Chi is immature and childlike, and the series is seen through her eyes. But that doesn’t mean it’s light, either. The author has managed to create a story that looks at many different people and ways of thinking, and scenarios, all through the world of cats. It’s not, like, Extremely Deep, but it does have a lot of depth, real emotion, an excellent, heartfelt story, and great characters. It’s short, it’s beautifully illustrated in full color, it’s adorable, and it made me cry in a good way more than once.