The Trouble with Monsters

Typical Haru, hurting her without even realizing it.

I’ve watched a lot of shoujo anime in my time. It doesn’t matter if it’s cliche or derivative, if it’s shoujo, I’ll give it a fighting chance. Maybe even more than that, actually. Remember how excited I was to see several shoujo series in last fall’s lineup? I had grandiose plans to write about all three of them regularly, but you know me and my unannounced blogging breaks… In any case, I wanted to write up a few last thoughts before jumping headfirst into the spring season and totally forgetting about those shows.

Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun was problematic from the very beginning, I knew that. I stuck with it out of misled loyalty to its female main character, Shizuku. I liked her — she was no-nonsense and unflappable. Even if she’s freaking out internally, you wouldn’t know it looking at her. Like many great poker players, she knows that revealing too much emotionally could cost you the game, and she’s too determined and stubborn to lose.

Enter Haru, unstoppable force to her immovable object. He enters with the force of a hurricane, disrupting her peaceful world and everything that she’s built up so far. He confesses that he’s in love with her, and then takes it back, only to repeat that cycle again. It’s one thing to be an adolescent in love, but in Haru’s case, it almost seems as if he’s using Shizuku as his emotional crutch instead of as an actual romantic partner.

In a romantic relationship, there is an expectation of a mutual give-and-take between partners. In Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun, it didn’t feel that way; Shizuku was offering more to Haru than she was receiving. Their group of friends came about because of Shizuku, even Yamaken and his friends warmed up to Haru because of her. Shizuku, despite her stoic reputation, was aware of the rules of society, and like it or not, abided by them. Haru thought that he could get through life punching and kicking his way in, failing that, he decided to stay at home and hide. When he found his new “in” back to society through Shizuku, he pushed his way in without consideration. How is that a foundation for love?

Of course, Shizuku isn’t exactly a perfect heroine either, that’s a given. Like Haru, she changes her feelings every two minutes, one minute claiming that he’s altered her worldview for the better, yet the next minute she’s doing a total reversal. As teenagers, this is typical and expected and maybe in their case, the flammable mix of hormones and feelings makes it difficult to process what role they want that other person to fill in their life.

Towards the end of the series, Shizuku mentions something about how she and Haru seem to be “out of sync,” like they can’t have the same feelings or be in the same mindset at the same time. I think that best sums up my dissatisfaction about their relationship in a nutshell. It’s bad enough to be the subject in a one-sided relationship, it’s possibly even worse to be the object of the one-sided relationship.

It’s also problematic for me how Shizuku and Haru don’t really share fundamental values: she’s extremely studious and focused on school because she wants to get a good job and succeed in the future, he doesn’t have those concerns. When he told her he loved her for the umpteenth time, he was genuinely surprised and displeased when she still chose her prep lessons over spending time with him. It’s just another example of them not being in sync, not just over feelings but goals. The classes are important to her — even at the risk of breaking up her relationship with him again, but he doesn’t seem to get it nor does he want to. In Kare Kano, Yukino and Arima were in the same situation, fighting to be at the top of the class, but even at their lovey-doviest, I don’t think Yukino ever yielded to Arima, nor did Arima ever ask Yukino to give up her competitive edge to play with him. Because they shared the same value for education, Yukino and Arima continued to challenge and support each other on the academic battlefield, which isn’t the case with Haru and Shizuku.

For a series that I didn’t love, I sure am able to write at length about it. That’s definitely one of the reasons that I keep going back to shoujo. Even if the stories are similar to something that I’ve seen or read before, there’s enough variation in the narratives to make it different. Shoujo deals very well with emotional choices and their repercussions — illustrating the same struggles that we all have to deal with each day. My frustrations with the story and the characters may help me make better choices for my own life, especially if their circumstances mirror my own. There are stories and characters that are difficult to like, much less love… and that’s all right. Stories are reflections of our reality, and not all of it is easy to like, much less love.

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Context and Consequence of a Stolen Kiss

It’s been a while since I’ve had more than two shoujo anime to watch in the new season. So maybe three is only one more than a couple, but it thrilled my little heart to see the previews — and now, episodes — for these series.

The stolen kiss — or more commonly, the stolen first kiss — is a shoujo trope as old as the sun. For the typical adolescent female, the first kiss is a momentous occasion; it marks her entry into the world of adult romantic relationships. Socialization has taught her that her first kiss will set a pattern for all future relationships, so it’s important that she chooses the right one for the first one. The stolen kiss is a popular yet intriguing trope since it removes the burden of choice from the female. Instead of the girl picking whom she’ll kiss, the other person makes the decision for her, hence the “stolen” descriptor.

For the three shoujo anime starting this season, all of them unsurprisingly show a scene where a character has a kiss stolen from her (or him). What are the implications of this stolen kiss to the plot? Were the characters primed for the scene or was it really a surprise? How could this stolen kiss affect the characters and the narrative later on?

Kamisama Kiss (Kamisama Hajimemashita) is the one that I’m most familiar with, having read a good chunk of the volumes that Viz has already released in English. The anime pretty much follows the manga plot to the letter, from Nanami’s first meeting with Mikage to her trip to the spirit world to get Tomoe back as her shinshi. I don’t remember which other anime blogger mentioned the rushed pacing, which didn’t bother me at all — I really would much rather get to the rest of Nanami’s crew as soon as possible since the Tomoe vs Nanami’s snark/love fest could get tiring really quickly.

I found it almost impossible to watch this series without thinking of its (Daichi) spiritual sibling, Fruits Basket. Same setup: girl without a home, stumbles on a new possible place to live, discovers her attractive new housemates are supernatural creatures. Nanami, though, isn’t a namby-pamby housemaid. She may not know exactly what’s going on, and what exactly are the implications of her being the new earth deity, but she isn’t going to take Tomoe’s abuse lying down. She’s going to take that bull, err, fox by the horns…

Nanami stealing a kiss from Tomoe is proof of her own personal agency. Onikiri and Kotetsu told her the kiss was the only way for the earth deity to establish the contract with the shinshi. Nanami had to make her decision quickly, even with the knowledge that being with the rude and oafish Tomoe may be one of the worst decisions of her life. On Tomoe’s part, I find it interesting that such an intimate human gesture would be the act that binds him in servitude. You’d think that a shinshi who’s obtained his freedom, albeit by neglect, would be more careful where his lips are pressed against.

My Little Monster (Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) is the one that’s raised eyebrows and ire throughout the (English-speaking) anime internet when it premiered last week. Haru needs to hire a quick-talking publicist to repair his image, stat!

Where Tomoe found himself being pulled to Nanami for a quick pucker, in My Little Monster, it was Shizuku who found herself on the receiving end of Haru’s luscious lips. From what happened in the first episode, I’m surprised that Shizuku was surprised that Haru would do something so audacious. How was it different from everything else that he’s done? Was his abrupt confession of love, despite their short acquaintance, not as shocking? Haru stealing her first kiss was perfectly in line and consistent with his personality and behavior.

Haru and Shizuku seem to me to be two sides of the same coin; where Haru projects his emotions externally and physically, Shizuku claims not to have feelings and instead hides under her mask of stoicism. They’re both socially awkward and are isolated from the bigger group. Haru recognizes these traits in her and maybe that’s why he was drawn to her from the get-go. Shizuku possibly felt the same connection, but her pride in being “Dry Ice” told her to hold back, since she might end up being hurt by him sometime down the line. After the kiss and Haru’s abrupt statement that he didn’t feel any excitement, would Shizuku’s opinion change? Is Haru worth the emotional investment?

The kiss scene in Say I Love You (Sukitte Iinayo) is the one which I felt was the most emotionally fraught. Mei Tachibana, like Shizuku in My Little Monster, has chosen to isolate herself from her peers, going years without saying a word to any of her classmates. She catches the eye of Yamato Kurosawa, the cute popular guy, who possibly has jboy-band aspirations with that snazzy hairstyle.

The initial chemistry between Mei and Yamato is really adorable. As Mr. Popular, he’s used to girls fawning on his every move, and since she’s not acting that way, he’s intrigued. He seems to think that she’s a challenge — not necessarily as a sexual conquest, but with more of an intention of finding out what makes her tick. Mei, with her limited experience with boyfriends, is at least cognizant  that Yamato is interested but doesn’t know enough of the social conventions of courtship. It was so cute when she thought that he wanted to exchange cell phones with her, not getting that it was shorthand for exchanging phone numbers. I have a feeling that Mei may not be ready for a relationship right this very second, but with Yamato, she appears ready to the idea of having a relationship.

When she calls Yamato to meet her at the convenience store, a kiss was probably the furthest thing from both their minds. I’d like to give Yamato the benefit of the doubt — that he came in there wanting to genuinely help her and calm her fear from the guy stalking her — I don’t think he went in there with a calculated ploy to steal her first kiss and her heart. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  For Mei, who’s just re-learning to navigate the headwaters of social relationships, having this unexpected first kiss is like having a tsunami hit her in the face.

For all these three couples, the stolen kiss is a gamechanger. The dynamics of their relationship will inevitably change because of this event, and it’s up to the couple on how much drama they’ll have to pass before ending up in romance happyland.

A Meiji-Era Bodice Ripper: Stepping on Roses 1-3

I was planning to write this yesterday, but I got hooked on tsuritama (HA!) so that’s why I’m only finding the time to write this today.

I think it’s fair to warn you that I haven’t met an Rinko UEDA manga that I didn’t like. For me, she’s the quintessential Margaret manga-ka, down to the big old-fashioned hair styles and the dewy eyes. I think I also like that her series are known for their historical settings, however flimsy. I enjoy it when manga artists choose to have a specialty, of sorts. If somebody can be the manga specialist on seinen space sci-fi, or on shoujo sports high-school drama, then maybe Rinko UEDA is the master of the historical-based shoujo romance.

Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome?

The setup of Stepping on Roses is textbook paperback romance: Sumi is a poor girl with the unfortunate luck of having the most irresponsible lout for a brother. He doesn’t just leave the family in debt, but he also brings home wayward children he finds on the street and has Sumi take care of them. One day, with the debt collectors at her door, the children screaming for food, and her brother nowhere to be found, Sumi marches to the red-light district, with the intention of selling herself to the highest bidder. Soichiro ASHIDA, a tall, dark-haired businessman takes her up on her offer. He’ll provide her with the money that she needs if she agrees to enter into a loveless marriage with him.

But wait! There’s more!

You’d think that a faux marriage with a domineering man wasn’t bad enough, but Sumi unknowingly finds herself as a pawn in a nefarious ploy orchestrated by Soichiro against his best friend, Nozomu IJUIN. Soichiro apparently didn’t pick Sumi randomly from the bevy of desperate poor girls, he knew that she is exactly Nozomu’s type and that if Nozomu were to fall in love with her, he could then accuse his friend of stealing his wife and then gain the upper-hand in their business dealings.

(I love how even my descriptions for this manga are sounding more purple the longer I keep writing…)

So Soichiro comes into this story as a cold-hearted bastard and when his plan actually seems to work out — because Nozomu is super predictable and falls head over heels over the doll-like Sumi as expected — he then realizes that he may actually have feelings for Sumi.

A Beginner’s Guide to Raising a Lady

Sumi, in all this, remains seemingly ignorant of the bigger drama that’s unfolding around her. She is fully cognizant of possible problems in agreeing to the marriage, but is willing to hold up her end of the bargain by becoming an “acceptable” wife that Soichiro can show off to society. There are several funny scenes where Sumi is being tutored by Soichiro’s butler, Komai, on how to be a proper lady. She does it all: learning the correct tableware, walking with a book on top of her head, learning how to eat with the correct tableware with a book on top of her head… It’s all very My Fair Lady, without the cockney accent.

In the hands of another author, I would’ve thought Sumi to be an insufferable character. She has the naive, super-genki personality that I feel is a stereotype that’s overplayed in manga. Maybe I’m just more patient with this artist. After my experience with Tail of the Moon, I trust Ueda to create a character who may appear sweet and nice at first, but will later show their inner steel at the right time.  Sumi is tougher than she looks. If she can survive starvation and poverty, anything that these rich people throw at her would be a piece of cake.

Examining the Genre and Work within the Genre

This series is one of those works where I feel unsure whether I like it or not. How can I say that I enjoy the romance and the intrigue between Sumi and her paramours when this work is such a perfect example of female objectification? Am I not offended that Sumi is treated primarily as an object by her brother, by Soichiro, and by Nozomu. In these three volumes, they don’t seem to see Sumi as a person, by Sumi as a representation of their masculine desire, be it money, lust, or influence.

But how much of that is the author’s own creative bent, and how much of it is the pressure of the genre? Authorial intent is always shaky ground to tread on, but I believe that Ueda is aware that her work is marketed as a romance, so it may not be too unbelievable to think that she adjusts her narrative to fit in with the structure that romance readers have come to expect. Tropes are repeated precisely because they work to create an effective mood and tone. More importantly, tropes within a genre are the signposts that establish the work as a part of that genre.

I’m not trying to give Stepping on Roses a pass, or deny that I don’t feel queasy at some of the situations that Sumi finds herself entangled in. But I also cannot deny that I do like the story so far, and I continue find it compelling and readable despite all of its problems. It’s probably the author’s track record, but I have a feeling that Stepping on Roses isn’t going to disappoint me in the way that Honey Hunt didand if it does, then I’ll be more than happy to write up an updated review.

Are there actually any bodices ripped in this manga? Well, I wouldn’t use that phrase in the title if it weren’t true, would I?

Kimi ni Todoke, Three Ways

I find it difficult to write about things that I unabashedly love. I always feel that I can’t accurately express how much something has affected me, so even if I write pages upon pages of words, those still wouldn’t be enough. Maybe I’m just hesitant to commit to something; there’s no way to take back a fangirl gush once it’s already out in the ether.

On this blustery September day, however, I will attempt to write about a series that I have loved from the first minute I saw it: Kimi ni Todoke. It’s a series that I feel is generally well-known, especially for fans of “old-school” shoujo (which I will explain in a bit), but which has also gained the begrudging respect of a more mainstream audience as well. It’s a  simple high-school romance — what is there about it that makes it so appealing?

Even though I’m a sucker for pretty things with little substance, I think Shiina KARUHO has managed to find a good balance between pretty art and an engaging enough story in Kimi ni Todoke. I really like the character designs for the main ensemble of characters, and especially for her leads, Sawako and Kazehaya. She is drawn like the typical high-school girl, unremarkable from the crowd, yet when the occasion calls on her to look beautiful or scary (Sadako mode!), Karuho deftly draws her to fit the mood. Kazehaya, in turn, is Mr. Perfect & Popular. He isn’t drawn model-gorgeous (like Yoh of High School Debut), but he fits the image of a sporty, all-around friendly, approachable guy.

I really love that her characters are distinct and identifiable. I’d never confuse Sawako and Chizu, and Ryu looks nothing like Kazehaya. Even the two characters who resemble each other the most in the manga, Ayane and Kurumi, are still easily distinguishable; just look at their eyes to make sure, Yano-chin (Ayane) wears more eye makeup! I know this isn’t primarily a problem only in shoujo manga, but I find it annoying when all of the characters within a single series resemble each other to the degree that I have problems telling them apart. Maybe I’m a lazy reader and don’t want to exert a lot of effort, but it could equally be a lazy artist, who can’t be bothered to make up distinct designs for their characters. I’d understand if  different characters among a number of series look like each other — that’s typical — but within a single work, two characters shouldn’t look like twins, unless they are!

Storywise, Kimi ni Todoke treads on familiar territory. It’s a story of a first love, of an average girl liking the popular boy, of two people who like each other but can’t seem to make the other person see just how much they do. When I mentioned the term “old school” shoujo earlier, it’s meant to describe the long, drawn out, sometimes frustrating road that our leads have to take just to get to the part where they can tell the other person that they like them. For a person who’s not familiar with shoujo manga conventions, watching Sawako and Kazehaya figuring out their relationship is worse than watching paint dry. It’s an interesting contrast to a series where the lead male and female start off their relationship fighting (like Makino and Tsukasa in Hana Yori Dango and a variety of Hollywood romantic comedies) so of course, by the time their feelings turn to affection, it’s after many chapters of misunderstanding and conflict. In Kimi ni Todoke, Sawako and Kazehaya are mutually attracted to the other from their first meet cute, but somehow, the misunderstandings took over before anyone realized it.

The anime, which lasted for two seasons, served as a gateway to the audience that wouldn’t have been following the manga to begin with. I mean, Production I.G. at the helm of a shoujo anime!? Maybe it’s worth checking this out.

What the anime was also able to show effectively was the series’ humor. When the manga’s main sight gag is how much the main character resembles Sadako from The Ring horror series, the anime does a better job of setting up the gag and the corresponding reactions than the manga ever could.

The anime also makes sure that it lingers just long enough at the moments where it needs us to pay attention, to see how Sawako and Kazehaya are falling in love, despite all of the obstacles that they or others have put in the way.

And then there’s the movie, which is the latest version of this series, and which is probably my least favorite incarnation. Even though it tried to get the essence of what makes Kimi ni Todoke represents, I felt that it rushed through the important moments and dawdled on the trivial things. For instance, I think that without establishing the back stories of Chizu and Ayane, it’s hard to understand why they would feel friendly towards Sawako. The two of them are considered “outcasts” themselves, maybe not to the same extent that Sawako is considered one, but if you were made aware of that in the movie, then it explains why their friendship started.

Though I have to agree with the author — the actors that they found for Sawako and Kazehaya are pretty much perfect. I’ve gone this long without using the adjective refreshing in this write-up, but Haruma Miura’s portrayal of Kazehaya is exactly how I pictured him to be, if he were a real-life Japanese high school boy. The way he smiles, the way he looks at Sawako, the way he does little things for her… it’s enough to make me want to be a high school girl again.

I sometimes look at my reading & watching patterns and even to myself, I find it curious why I’m gravitate so frequently towards series set in high school. I can’t explain why I like these stories and why they evoke a (fake) feeling of nostalgia since my own experience in secondary education was nothing like this, I didn’t even have a Kazehaya to dream about. Maybe that’s just the power of a good story, in that you’re drawn in to it, even without a personal frame of reference to judge on. Maybe I just like stories where a girl can find happiness and love, and possibly good friends and a cute boy to kiss and hold hands with. Maybe that’s it.

Yurara and the Problems of a (Supernatural) Love Polygon

This post is written for the September 2012 Manga Moveable Feast hosted by Manga Report. This month’s featured topic is Viz’s Shojo Beat imprint. If you’d like to participate, more information is available at the Call for Participation post or in the Google group.

Yurara is just your everyday love story between two boys, a girl, and a ghost. Okay, guardian spirit, but you’re just being fussy.

In most shojo manga, a love triangle is a plot tactic often used to build and develop emotional tension. It seems very much the stuff of young fantasy: a cute girl has to pick between two equally attractive boys vying for her favor. Each boy would have qualities that differentiate him from his rival; one may be quiet and brooding, whereas the other would be  loud and impulsive. It really becomes a matter of closing your eyes and letting random chance pick between two great flavors, since in the end, either one is probably worth it.

In this shojo series, the relationships are further complicated because the two boys, Yako and Mei, are competing for the love of Yurara, their classmate and Yurara, the guardian spirit that possesses and protects her.

It’s stories such as these that are the reason why I can’t ever give up shojo manga. As if teenage love wasn’t complicated enough without adding a ghost into the mix.

Warning: unmarked spoilers after this point.

Yurara Tsukinowa has always been the weird girl. She blankly stares off into space and starts crying for no reason whatsoever. Turns out, she has a special ability: she can see ghosts as well as have empathy for their emotions. The ghosts that she encounters have a reason why they can’t pass over, and it’s these remaining emotions that she feels and which trigger her own emotional response.

On the first day of high school, she literally finds herself in-between the two boys who would change her life. Mei Tendo and Yako Hoshino, like Yurara, are able to see spirits as well as possess abilities that they use to repel the ones that have become malevolent. Mei uses demon fire, whereas Yako uses a water barrier — again, playing on the stereotype that rivals have to be opposite to the other.

Yurara, unlike the two boys, doesn’t have an offensive or defensive ability to help her if and when the spirits should attack. Unknown to her, she has a guardian spirit, which only reveals itself each time Yurara finds herself in trouble. The spirit, which is revealed to be Yurara’s ancestor (and whom she was named after), possesses her body and has the ability to exorcise the ghosts from the earthly realm.  When the spirit takes over her body, Yurara’s appearance takes the form of her ancestor, even though she continues to be aware of what is going on.

The primary conflict in Yurara is more a matter of logistics than anything else: Yurara loves Mei (and vice-versa); Yako, in turn, loves the guardian spirit, who only appears to take over the body of high-school age Yurara. There’s just not enough physical bodies to go around!  Each time Yurara transforms into the form of the spirit guardian, the guardian’s emotions are so strong that they take over the entire being, thus causing even additional emotional turmoil for Yurara, who thinks that she is in love with both boys at the same time. When Yurara agrees to become Mei’s girlfriend, she feels like she’s betraying his trust by still having feelings for Yako each time the spirit appears. The random kisses with Yako don’t help her case too much either.

(It’s a good thing that Yurara isn’t Natsuyuki Rendezvous — if Yurara’s spirit guardian were as selfish as Atsushi, then this story would have ended up a little differently…)

To her credit, though, Yurara has always known that Mei was the one whom she loved. He accepted her and loved her as herself. He would sometimes tease her and make jokes that he prefers the more statuesque guardian, but he genuinely loves Yurara, the normal, slightly weird girl the most. Yurara’s choice to become independently strong, to live without the protection of her guardian, came about from her desire to save Mei. Once she was able to use her own powers, the guardian no longer needed to protect her. The guardian’s soul was able to follow her own love without being joined to Yurara’s physical body.

How about Yako? Does he get his happy ending? Well, that’s why Rasetsu came about.