Archive for July 2010

Manga Moveable Feast: Paradise Kiss

This review was written for the Manga Moveable Feast  and thus is a bit different than the usual reviews I post on this blog in that major spoilers will be discussed. (There is also a spoiler for NANA.) I’ll probably rewrite this at a later date to be less spoiler-y, but if you have not read Paradise Kiss yet and want to remain spoiler-free, you’ll probably want to skip this version. Also, there will be some discussion of rape.

TITLE: Paradise Kiss
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
CATEGORY: Shoujo/Josei
SCORE: 9 (Great)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Ai Yazawa (mangaka of NANA, Kagen no Tsuki, Gokinjo Monogatari), Paradise Kiss anime, NANA anime, Gokinjo Monogatari anime, romance, drama, comedy

I actually was introduced to Paradise Kiss first through the anime. I had always been a little intrigued by the manga whenever I saw it at the bookstore, but the cover art (the first editions — I like the second edition covers) always kind of turned me off. However, immediately after I finished Netflixing the anime, I was putting in an order at Right Stuf for the manga I had previously ignored.

Turns out you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Eighteen-year-old high school senior Yukari Hayasaka is bored with her life. All she ever does is study in order to please her education-obsessed mother, who expects her to get into a good college. Yukari, however, isn’t even sure she wants to go to college, having no real personal dreams or goals besides those foisted on her by her parents.

Her life becomes infinitely more interesting when she is scouted by a group of students from the Yazawa School for the Arts to be their model in an upcoming fashion show during their school’s cultural festival. The group, calling themselves by the name of Paradise Kiss, consists of an eclectic group of characters: Miwako, a cute pink-haired girl who looks far younger than her actual age, Arashi, Miwako’s rocker boyfriend who possesses a bit of a jealous streak, Isabella, the elegant transvestite who acts as the “mother” of the group, and George, the openly bisexual leader and head designer of Paradise Kiss. Though intially overwhelmed by the strangeness of the group and thinking they’re a bunch of slackers, Yukari soon finds herself won over by their obvious passion for what they do and intrigued by their handsome and charismatic leader.

What I love about this series is how real and messy it is. Yazawa is not afraid to give her characters real flaws and let them make mistakes, especially when it comes to the relationship between Yukari and George. Right from the start, despite their obvious attraction to each other, it’s clear that they are fundamentally incompatible with each other. George prefers confident, independent women who know their own mind and often treats Yukari coldly when he thinks she’s being weak and silly, while Yukari struggles to even decide what it is she wants after spending her entire life being bound by rules and her mother’s high expectations.

As you might expect from a typical shoujo story, Yukari decides to change herself to better fit George’s ideal, except by doing so, she’s actually allowing George to control her life. Even though she may insist that the decisions she makes are her own, she really bases the majority of her decisions on what she thinks George would want her to do — in effect, becoming the opposite of the kind of lover George wants. There’s a definite irony in that. While Yukari thinks she’s becoming a strong and independent woman, worthy of George’s love, she’s actually just going through a classic case of teenage rebellion, influenced by a manipulative boyfriend.

Not that Yukari doesn’t mature during her experiences, because she does. She finally discovers something she is passionate about — modeling –and through the mistakes she makes, she learns some important lessons about life and especially love — namely that no matter how much two people may care for each other, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily “right” for each other. By the end of the story, she does become a true independent woman, one who makes the best decisions for herself, not for George, and manages to find somebody who she can actually depend on.

George himself is one of the most interesting male leads I’ve come across in manga, far different from the stereotypical romantic interest. Prince Charming, he isn’t. Several characters describe him as “warped”, and that’s a fairly apt description. He plays the role of a self-centered, extravagant, somewhat eccentric genius, taking pleasure in disregarding rules and convention and driving everyone — especially Yukari and Arashi — insane with his sudden whims and desires. Though it’s never explicitly confirmed, it’s strongly implied that in addition to his relationship with Yukari, he’s also sleeping with Seiji, a male hair and make-up artist who sometimes teaches at Yazawa Arts, and he’s far from a loving, caring boyfriend. Yukari herself even wonders at times if George even knows the meaning of the word “love”.

Amazingly, however, George does come off as sympathetic character once we learn more of his background and realise the reason why he treats Yukari the way he does. As the illegitimate child of a rich business man, he doesn’t want Yukari to become like his mother, a former model who gave up her career to give birth to George. His mother is completely dependent on George’s father for her livelihood and never lets a chance pass by to complain about how George and her lover ruined her life, although she’s never done anything to try to change things. By sometimes being cruel to Yukari, he believes he’s actually, in a way, being kind to her, encouraging her to take responsibility for her own actions and stand on her own two feet instead of relying solely on him. That’s all well and good, of course, but what he doesn’t understand is that sometimes it is okay to lean on those you love, and that he’s not completely blameless for Yukari’s actions, no matter how much he may deny he isn’t.

There’s also a second romantic plot in the series revolving around a love triangle between Miwako, Arashi, and their childhood friend Hiroyuki, who coincidentally is a classmate of Yukari’s and is the object of Yukari’s crush at the beginning of the story. Paradise Kiss is technically a sequel to an earlier, currently unlicensed Yazawa work called Gokinjo Monogatari (Neighborhood Story), though no prior knowledge is needed to enjoy PK, since it takes place about twenty years later. Miwako is the little sister of Mikako, the heroine of Gokinjo Monogatari, and Arashi and Hiroyuki are the sons of some of the other GM characters. The three of them grew up together in the same apartment building, but had a falling out when both the boys fell in love with Miwako, leading Arashi to order Miwako to cut off all contact with Hiroyuki. Thanks to Yukari’s well-intentioned meddling, however, Miwako and Hiroyuki end up meeting again, causing problems in Miwako’s relationship with Arashi as he begins to fear losing her to Hiroyuki, who he considers a much better guy than he is. 

I wasn’t as fond of their story as I was Yukari and George’s. Fact is, Hiroyuki is a far better guy than Arashi, who we later learn raped Miwako the first time they had sex. It’s played off as something Arashi didn’t mean to do, and he’s sincerely regretful for what he did, but instead of Miwako breaking things off with him as you would hope a rape victim to do in that situation, she decides to accept that violent part of him because she loves him so much. Now, Arashi isn’t some kind of monster. Other than the rape and his (mostly understandable, if unreasonable) jealousy toward Hiroyuki, he’s a decent enough guy — Arashi is probably the sanest and most normal member of Paradise Kiss, despite his punk rocker looks — and seems to treat Miwako well. I’m not saying it was necessarily wrong for Miwako to forgive him for what happened. People sometimes deserve second chances, and as far as the reader is aware, Arashi never does anything like that again. In fact, at the end of the story, they’re happily married with a daughter. I just would have liked to see Arashi in therapy to deal with his issues. Violent tendencies aren’t something that a lover should have to “accept”, and Arashi could have easily become abusive toward Miwako. No, having a talk with Hiroyuki (who actually plans to study psychology in college) about what happened is not the same thing as dealing with his issues of insecurity, although it is a start. Even if Hiroyuki had just suggested Arashi get some (professional) help, I would have been happy. It’s just too easy of a solution compared to complexity of Yukari and George’s problems and how things are resolved, so I was a bit disappointed with that.

(If there’s one major criticism I have with Ai Yazawa — besides the fact that her characters are way. too. freaking. thin. — it’s how she portrays date-rape. Generally, I like Arashi, and I love Takumi from NANA, but I do not like the fact that they both raped their love interests and didn’t really suffer any major consequences for their actions — i.e. their girlfriends stay with them and forgive them right away. (And, at least in Arashi and Miwako’s case, they’re seen as a “good” couple who get a happy ending. I won’t get into Takumi and Hachi’s relationship, since this isn’t a NANA review.) There’s messed up (George)…and then there’s really messed up. Still, it’s saying something for Yazawa’s talent that she can write these two characters doing such a horrible thing, and yet I still like them.)

Enough with all this talk of romance, drama, and sex, though. Let’s talk about the clothes. Oh, the clothes!

Yazawa actually studied to become a fashion designer before she started her career as a mangaka, and it shows. She probably had a lot of fun drawing this series due to all the fabulous and over-the-top outfits the characters wear. Each character has a distinct style that suits their personalities. Miwako, who looks (and sometimes acts) like a little girl, favors cutesy, frilly outfits, often made by her sister’s fashion company, Happy Berry. Arashi, the punk rocker, has tons of piercings and dresses in rock star style. Isabella, despite being physically a man, pulls off wild eye make-up and beautiful, elegant dresses that often appear to be Victorian-inspired with aplomb. As for George, his apparel is as flamboyant as he is. Only he could pull off wearing a feather boa and sunglasses and have the effect come off as sexy instead of silly.

It’s Yukari who gets the best wardrobe, though, as George allows her to wear her choice of his designs. Though the clothes he designs are far from conventional and not something you would see many people wearing on the streets, there’s no denying he has a great talent, and Yukari is the perfect model to wear them, as if they were made just for her. I also really liked the symbolism behind the clothes. To George, every design he makes holds an important memory to him, so for him to allow Yukari to wear them shows just how much he really loved her, despite the way he treated her at times. The scene near the end, where Yukari realizes that he’s left all his designs to her even though they’ve broken up, makes me cry every time. It’s his way of saying “I love you,” and so uniquely George.

There’s a lot more I could say about Paradise Kiss. In fact, I could probably write a two thousand word essay on George’s character alone — I didn’t even discuss how appealingly human he becomes in the last few chapters as he struggles between pursuing his dreams as a fashion designer or taking the safer route of becoming a hair and make-up artist so he can support his mother — but I think this is already long enough. In conclusion, Paradise Kiss is an amazing series, and I would highly recommend reading it.

3 comments July 30, 2010

Name of the Flower

TITLE: Name of the Flower
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 8 (Very Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Ken Saito (mangaka of Oh! My Brother), drama, romance, comedy

I had heard a lot of good things about this series, so I’m glad I finally got the chance to check it out.

Name of the Flower is about young woman named Chouko Mizushima. When she is in high school, both her parents are killed in an accident, leaving her in such a state of shock, she stops talking and completely withdraws from the world. She is passed among various family members and friends until her father’s cousin Kei permanently takes Chouko in.

Twelve years older than Chouko, Kei is a famous, but reclusive, novelist, known for writing incredibly dark, depressing stories. He suggests to Chouko that she take over his long-abandoned garden as a way to keep her mind off things. Gradually, Chouko comes out of her shell, and the two develop feelings for each other. Kei even writes a novel based on their relationship, titled “Hana” that is (slightly) more hopeful than his previous works.

However, Kei is even more damaged than Chouko. He feels like he doesn’t deserve to be happy and thinks it would be better for Chouko to find someone else to love. Their relationship comes to a standstill as Chouko enters college and joins a literature club at school, where she meets the painfully shy and sweet Sousuke Karasawa. Karasawa falls in love with Chouko, but her heart remains with Kei, despite the darkness inside him.

In several reviews I’ve read for this series, reviewers have compared Name of the Flower to Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel Jane Eyre. That’s a fairly apt comparison, I think. Kei and Chouko are like a modern-day Rochester and Jane, though I believe Kei has more in common with the Byronic hero Rochester than Chouko with passionate, independent Jane. Their romance is just as tortured, however, as the two spend many years drawing closer, then pulling away from each other while Kei insists on punishing himself for what happened in his past.

A story like this could be prone to melodrama, but Saito does a great job of gradually building up emotions. There’s a restraint to the story that makes the scenes where Kei and Chouko do let go that much more dramatic and effective. Their emotions never feel silly or overwrought, just painfully real.

It’s not all drama and tragedy, though. Name of the Flower is surprisingly funny, thanks in equal parts to Chouko’s hilarious, Kei-idolizing friends in the Taisho Authors’ Association and Shinichi Akiyama, Kei’s goofy editor and self-named best friend. Any bibliophile is bound to identify with this wacky group of book-lovers, of which Akiyama is the undisputed king. The club admires Akiyama just as much as they do Kei for his unrivaled knowledge of Japanese literature, and he becomes somewhat of an unofficial member of the club.

Actually, I’d have to say that the “friendship” between Kei and Akiyama is probably my favorite relationship in the series. The two of them are total opposites — Kei is a misanthropic loner, while fun-loving Akiyama is about as extroverted as they come — yet they play off each other so well, you can see how close they really are, despite Kei’s grumblings to the contrary. And Akiyama’s character gets some unexpected depth later in the story as we learn about his past with Kei.

What of the main couple, though? Well, in my opinion, Chouko is a pretty bland heroine. She’s very sweet and pretty, but she’s totally overshadowed by a cast of far more interesting characters. Don’t get me wrong, I can certainly sympathize with the pain she must have felt losing her parents and understand why she feels such a strong connection with Kei. It’s just that I wish she had a more vibrant personality. She’s not really passionate about anything besides Kei and possibly her garden. She’s not even that much of a reader, joining the Taisho Authors’ association largely out of pity for Karasawa, who was ordered by his seniors to find at least one new recruit for the club.

As for Kei, I did rather enjoy his tortured and snarky character, but I actually agree with him that he’s not a good romantic prospect for Chouko. He doesn’t need the love of a good woman to show him the joy of living again. What he really needs is the number of a good psychiatrist. His issues run very deep, and no matter how much these two damaged people might love each other, it’s just not a healthy relationship, no matter how you look at it. In real life, if I were Chouko’s friend, I would try to convince her to give up on a romantic relationship with Kei and pursue one with adorable Karasawa, who is a much more appropriate love interest.

But this isn’t real life, and sometimes it is nice change of pace to read a romance that isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, so I don’t consider that a major drawback, especially since their romance is not meant to be seen as healthy and ideal. Saito readily acknowledges that the two of them are messed up. Besides, how often in shoujo does the heroine actually pick the guy who is the best for her from a practical point of view? Logic and love aren’t always compatible, and that’s where good drama begins.

I believe Name of the Flower is Saito’s debut series, so the artwork is rough in spots. It gets better in later volumes, but still not a style I personally care for. It’s not bad, though, and feels kind of retro.

Name of the Flower is not a typical fluffy romance. The central couple consists of two very damaged people, and the road to love is not an easy one. Still, there’s something very appealing about it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those looking for a love story in the vein of the old Gothic romances.

Add a comment July 14, 2010

Azumanga Daioh

TITLE: Azumanga Daioh
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Kiyohiko Azuma
PUBLISHER: ADV Manga and Yen Press
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 9 (Great)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Kiyohiko Azuma (mangaka of Yotsuba&!), 4-koma manga, Azumanga Daioh anime, Lucky Star, comedy, slice of life

Before I begin, I’d like to point out that for the purposes of this review, I’m referring to the new Yen Press omnibus edition that came out last year. For those who don’t know the history, Azumanga Daioh was originally licensed to ADV Manga, who put out the four individual volumes and an omnibus edition of their own, but those versions are now out-of-print. I’ve never read the ADV version, so I’m afraid I can’t compare the two. Chances are, though, if you want to pick this title up nowadays, this is the edition you’re going to get, since it’s easier to find.

Now, onto the review.

Azumanga Daioh is different in format than your typical manga. Instead of being drawn as one continuous story, the majority of this series is made up of yonkoma (or 4-koma, as it is commonly known) comic strips. What is 4-koma? Well, it’s similar to the comic strips (like Garfield, for example) you read in the Sunday paper. Each strip consists of four panels of equal size, usually vertically drawn, and they are almost always comedic in tone. Though you can read them each individually and still get the joke most of the time, there is a sense of chronology in Azumanga Daioh — the  volumes are broken up into sections titled by month — and a lot of the strips build on each other to form story lines.

This is my first true foray into the world of 4-koma. Some of the other manga series I’ve previously read have featured 4-koma strips as bonus material — the Death Note 4-koma strips, in particular, are favorites of mine — and I watched the Azumanga Daioh anime years ago, which I enjoyed quite a bit, but I was curious how a series consisting of almost entirely all 4-koma would fair. Turns out, quite well.

Azumanga Daioh is, in a word, hilarious.

The premise behind the series is simple. It’s about a group of five — later six, and maybe seven if you count Kaorin — female classmates who become a close-knit group of friends during their three years of high school. It’s the characters, however, who provide the laughs, and what an eccentric group they are.

Let’s start with the teachers. The girls’ homeroom advisor and English teacher for all three years is Yukari Tanizaki. She’s greedy, she’s jealous, she’s sarcastic, she’s lazy, she drives like a maniac… She’s comedic gold. In fact, she’s my favorite character in the series, though I don’t think I would have wanted her as my teacher. Her best friend Minamo “Nyamo” Kurosawa, who is a gym teacher at the school, is quite frankly a saint for managing to put up with Yukari for so many years and not killing her. Rounding out the “teachers” group is the only male character of importance, the creepy classical literature teacher Mr. Kimura, who boldly informs the class that the only reason he became a teacher is because he likes high school girls. He’s especially obsessed with Kaorin. How he managed to get such a pretty wife is one of the series’ greatest mysteries. 

Moving onto the girls themselves, Yomi and Tomo are the backbone of the group, in my opinion, as they have been in the same class ever since elementary school. If I had to chose a favorite of the girls, I would probably pick Yomi. I can certainly empathize with her dieting woes, and she’s the most “normal” of the group, often playing the straight man to the other characters (especially Tomo). But on the occasions when she shows a naughtier side to her personality — such as when she tricks one of the girls into eating a flaming-hot chili croquette — Yomi gets some of the biggest laughs. As for Tomo, she’s like a hurricane, always leaving destruction in her wake. She is a force not to be trifled with, saying and doing whatever comes to mind, no matter who it might hurt or inconvenience. Admittedly, she’s a bit of a jerk, but she’s so funny that you forgive her for it. 

Then there’s Chiyo, an adorable ten year old who is allowed to enroll in high school because of her high intelligence. Though she is a genius, she can’t compete with the older girls in physical feats, and her short stature is a source of annoyance for her, as most people still treat her like a little kid. On the other end of the height spectrum is Sakaki, one of the tallest girls in school and admired by her classmates for her quiet, cool personality. Behind her elegant facade, however, Sakaki has a secret love for all things cute, especially animals. Too bad the cats in her neighborhood inexplicably hate her.

Though she’s mostly oblivious to it, Sakaki has a friendly rival in Kagura, who joins the class during their second year. Kagura, a member of the swim team, is into sports and considers Sakaki her biggest threat in athletic events. Outside of competition, though, she tries to become friends with Sakaki, something that would be much easier if she would stop doodling violent images of animals being killed.

And last, but certainly not least, is Ayumu “Osaka” Kasuga. Osaka is… Osaka is… I’m just going to quote directly from the back cover: “Well, she’s…different.” That about sums her up in a nutshell.

It would be nearly impossible for me to talk about my favorite strips without spoiling most of the jokes, so I won’t. Just know that it’s funny stuff. And if you enjoyed the anime, you’ll probably like the manga as well. I thought a lot of the material actually worked better in the manga, although, like I mentioned before, it’s been years since I watched it.

Presentation-wise, Yen Press did a really nice job on this omnibus edition. There are twelve color pages, including a short colorized “special” — chapters that are drawn with the more typical manga paneling — focusing on Tomo, a section of translation notes between each volume break, and a handy index in the back that makes it easy to find your favorite strips as long as you remember the title. Azuma’s artwork itself is nothing special — to be expected, given the limitations of 4-koma — but well-suited for a manga like this. He has quite the talent for portraying comedy, with nice comic timing.

I was a bit hesitant to give a 4-koma series a try, but I’m happy to report that Azumanga Daioh more than exceeded by expectations. Looking for a good laugh and maybe feeling a little nostalgic for your own high school days? Azumanga Daioh may be just the title for you.

Add a comment July 7, 2010






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