Digital Delivery: To Your Eternity, chapters 1-40

To Your Eternity, Chapter 1To Your Eternity by Yoshitoki Ōima, Chapters 1-40 (不滅のあなたへ, Fumetsu no anata e, literally “To you, immortal”; serialized in Weekly Shōnen Magazine; Kodansha edition 2017, Kodansha USA digital editions 2017)

Ever since my Official Job Description came to involve a lot of technical writing (as opposed to merely informally involving a lot of technical writing),
I have been lacking in motivation for any recreational writing, such as this blog. But I want to write about this series, because it hurts and I want other people to share the pain.

I read this as Kindle eBooks in chapter format; a print edition of Volume 1 is scheduled for the end of October. As far as I can tell, the 40 chapters covered here correspond to partway through Volume 5, so the digital edition is far ahead of the print release. Therefore, this will be light on spoilers, except for Chapter 1 and the overall thematic content.

For a sample, you can read most of Chapter 1 free on the publisher’s website here.

(May I take the opportunity to say how much I hate the chapter format for digital manga, especially for Kindle, which doesn’t seem to have any way to collect the individual files under one icon. So now I have 40 individual “covers” cluttering up my book list. Plus, the Kindle “sort by title” does that thing where it counts 1, 10…19, 2, 20..29, 3 – arrgh. Dear publishers: VOLUME FORMAT PLS.)

So. The “cover” for the first Kindle chapter of this series (apparently originally an interior illustration for the print edition) shows a cute boy and a wolf in an Arctic landscape, and the promo text mentions “the tale of an abandoned native boy journeying alone in the frozen north with only a mysterious wolf for a companion”. That sounded great, but it is not, in fact, what the series is about. What this series is about is utter soul-destroying tragedy on continuous repeat.

We start with a mysterious black-robed figure dropping a “sphere” onto the Earth, where it lands in barren snow fields somewhere in the far North. The sphere, initially non-sentient, mimics the most interesting thing in the immediate vicinity; first a rock, then some moss. Eventually a dying wolf collapses nearby, and the sphere mimics the wolf. It turns out that this wolf belongs to aforementioned cute boy, who has been left behind by his tribe to take care of the old people while the rest head off in search of a fabled land of warmth and food to the south. All of the old people have since died, leaving the boy and his wolf alone in the abandoned settlement. (Incidentally, the promo text for the print edition places all this in North America, but the clothes, architecture, ships and domesticated reindeer suggest that the inspiration for his fictional culture is actually more Nordic.)

Cute boy (whose name is never given) is perky and cheerful and has “endlessly enthusiastic shounen protagonist” written all over him; now that he has been reunited with his lupine companion, he determines to leave the settlement and follow the rest of his tribe to the land of fruit trees and sun. And for a little while it looks like this story will indeed be about the adventures of a boy and his wolf as they track the path of the previous group through the snowy wastes. But in fact, this is Not That Story, and it soon becomes clear that the promised land is not obtainable, the rest of the tribe has died along the wayside, and our cute boy is going to be determinedly cheerful and make the best of everything and put on a brave front right up until he dies of hunger, exhaustion, and his infected leg wound. Which he does at the end of chapter 1.

And so the sphere-wolf-thing becomes able to mimic Nordic Boy, and staggers off into the snow.

Repeat, da Capo al Coda, until the reader is a quivering wreck.

The overall structure of the series is episodic, with every narrative arc showing sphere-wolf-boy (eventually dubbed Immo, for “immortal”) encountering some group of people in one or another fantasy culture, getting embroiled in their (usually exciting and action-scene-y) problems, and eventually witnessing the tragic death of one or more of them under the most traumatic conditions possible. Mysterious Black-robed Person’s stated intention for sphere-thing is for it to learn about the world, and, as another character notes later, Immo learns through pain: physical pain, and emotional pain.

As Immo meets more people and goes through more trauma, he progresses from a barely-sentient thing that alternates between a weird semi-verbal boy and a weird semi-verbal wolf, to a developed human personality capable of experiencing friendship and love and grief (especially grief). Immo can mimic the form and abilities of the people and animals he becomes involved with, but only after they die, meaning that he “powers up” as the story goes along by losing the people he cares about, over and over again. He’s also empathic, and feels the physical pain of the people and animals around him, down to crabs being boiled for dinner. And he’s immortal, so whatever horrible injuries he sustains, he will regenerate, to travel ever onward and suffer ever more.

There’s an antagonist of sorts in the form of the “knockers” (WORST. NAME. EVER.), so-far-poorly-explained beings that occasionally attack Immo for so-far-poorly-explained reasons, but the true terror of their attacks is that they can steal his “forms”, meaning that he loses even his memories of the people that have contributed to him. But the real enemy here is the author, who is out to put Immo (and the reader) through as much trauma as possible.

This is, on the one hand, an excellent series. The art varies in style according to the tone of the current scene, from delicately realistic to rounded and cartoony, but at its best is strikingly polished and detailed, with some gorgeous fantastical imagery. The writing effectively conveys everything from slice-of-life, to action, to blushing romance (not involving Immo), and gets you to care about each new set of characters even after you know very well that this is a losing proposition.

The problem is that it is, unabashedly, a feel-bad book. You read this to be wrung out, stomped flat, and crumbled into hamburger. Negative emotions can be recreational, and the specific recreational experience on offer here is “cry uncontrollably until you make yourself stop reading”. I marathoned all 40 current chapters in an afternoon, and, in retrospect, this was a very bad idea. “Emotionally draining” doesn’t cover it.

So I give this series a qualified recommendation: if you can handle 5+ volumes of constant unending grief and loss, absolutely read this, it is beautiful. If that sounds like it would put you on suicide watch, don’t.

pages from To Your Eternity


Digital Delivery: Three shoujo one-shots you can’t get anymore

I’m pleased that initiatives like DMP’s Digital Manga Guild exist to help bring over some less-commercial manga. Unfortunately, Japan isn’t completely up on the concept of digital, and so digital manga is subject to some weird restrictions that don’t make any sense, like going out of “print”. Today I’ll look at some digital-only releases which aren’t being released anymore (TL;DR: you didn’t miss much), but are mildly interesting for other reasons.

All of these titles were serialized on the web in Japan, rather than in a traditional magazine (so they’re digital x2). This is still quite unusual in Japanese publishing (cellphone manga is fairly successful financially but it leans heavily towards porn and webcomic-ish stuff), and it’s kind of interesting to see what kind of material publishers think will work in this model. The web-magazine in question, COMIC CYUTT, is described as targeting “females in their teens to twenties”, so they might be considered josei, but DMG has them as shoujo so I’ll stick with that. There once were six manga from this imprint on eManga, but apparently PAPYLESS and/or Media Factory (who jointly run COMIC CYUTT) decided to pull their titles after about a year (not making enough money? change in direction? disagreements with DMP?). (Incidentally, PAPYLESS also runs Renta!, which has all kinds of hilariously trashy cell-phone and digital-first manga in English, including lots of “Teens’ Love”, AKA het josei smut.)

I bought all six before they went offline, so as a peek into Japan’s digital publishing efforts and a memorialization of the fallen, here’s the first three I looked at:

Seiwa High School Bento Club

Seiwa High School Bento Club!, art by Umitamako, Script Advisement by Yuhmi Yamada (Seiwa Gakuen Bentou Bu!, originally serialized in Comic Cyutt. Comic Cyutt edition 2011; Digital Manga Guild edition, 2013)

As a child, our heroine Sayoko was adopted into a large but poor family that never has enough to eat. In order to leave food for her siblings, she eats only the minimum at home, which is a problem for her because she has a ravenous appetite. Furthermore, her high school has a culinary-school track that she was unable to get into, so she’s tortured by the delicious smells coming from the cooking classes. But fortunately she soon has a run-in with the school’s Bento (lunchbox) Club, composed of four of the school’s best cooks, who, in an amazing and totally unexpected plot twist, are all hot guys (one of whom occasionally crossdresses, because shoujo). Impressed by her ability to detect subtle flavors and appreciate the fine nuances of their cuisine even while plowing through immense quantities of food at lightning speed, she becomes sort of an honorary member (even though she can’t cook at all), in charge of taste-testing, critique, and making sure there are no leftovers.

The manga does not have nearly as much food-porn as it initially appears that it will; most of it is split between exploration of the various guys’ family problems, and their rivalry with the equally hot and talented but much jerk-ier men of Ike Culinary School’s Epicurean Club, which is the top pick for the annual national Box Lunch competition that the Bento Club is also competing in. (In the manga’s one best joke, the Ike group dubs their bento “Ike-Ben”, which is a pun on ikemen, “hot guy”.) Of course, although the Epicurean Club’s haute-Japanese cuisine is amazing, our protagonists come to realize that traditional home cooking is the best.

The manga ends very abruptly, just as the bento competition reaches its final round. Either the mangaka was unable to get the story to fit into the space allotted, even with the help of a “script advisor”, or the series was cancelled without the usual grace of a chapter or two to wrap it up. It’s somewhat unsatisfying not to find out whether the Seiwa gang won, although Sayoko does manage to get off the obligatory “making food that ordinary people can appreciate is the most important thing!” speech in the final pages.

The art is decent, but with some issues about faces, especially eyes, and the translation is slightly awkward in spots. There’s not enough focus on the food to make this a satisfying foodie manga, and the other plot elements are a little too generic. Add in the abrupt ending, and I couldn’t recommend it even if you could still get it.

Pandra Restaurant

Pandra Restaurant!, by Riri Sagara (Pandra Restaurant!, originally serialized in Comic Cyutt. Comic Cyutt edition 2010; Digital Manga Guild edition, 2014)

The title is weird: “Pandra” is quite obviously supposed to be “Pandora”. Whoever on the Japanese end romanized it needs a good talking-to and maybe an unabridged English dictionary.

This is an example of one of the stranger fads in Japanese pop culture over the last few years: stories about anthropomorphized random stuff. In this case, kitchen implements. That look like cute guys.

The main character is Manaita (“cutting board”), a plastic cutting board who has been hired at a small restaurant; it’s his first job, so he’s nervous, especially about how he’s going to get along with the knife. Unfortunately for him, knife-guy is bad-tempered, sadistic, and looks down on plastic cutting boards (who he regards as much inferior to wooden cutting boards). The rest of the cast doesn’t get along very well either; frying-pan is constantly bickering with spatula, everyone picks on saucepan because he’s a simple traditional style, and only sponge is capable of keeping the others in line (by threatening not to clean them).

The chapters are divided into episodes so short that it feels like a 4-koma manga even though it’s not. Most of the stories revolve around sitcom personality differences and arguments, and the utensils’ resentment of the stylish bishounen tableware (who need to look good because they interact with the customers), but some do trade on the kitchen-utensil premise, with predictably odd results. There’s almost no BL elements, even though the utensil-pairing setup would seem to be ideal for it, but there is a random episode of crossdressing, because shoujo.

The translation is pretty clunky, to the point where it’s sometimes not clear what’s going on (frying pan is steel and consequently needs to “collect oil” before cooking… is that a reference to frying in more oil because he’s not nonstick? or needing to be seasoned???). The art is decent and the guys are reasonably good-looking if you can get past the hair-wings on a couple of them, but the stories are mostly lightweight, kind of silly, and/or strange. I suspect it worked better in small doses mixed with other things, as it probably was when serialized, rather than all in a lump as it is here. Also, the English logo does not preserve the adorable crossed-fork-and-exclamation-point of the Japanese logo.

Welcome To Nyan Cafe

Welcome to Nyan Cafe!, by Kira Nakamura (Nyan Cafe e Youkoso!, originally serialized in Comic Cyutt. Comic Cyutt edition 2010; Digital Manga Guild edition, 2014)

Welcome to Nyan Cafe! is a 4-koma about four anthropomorphic cats that work in a cat café, although as one of the characters notes it’s really more like a host club, since the female clients see the cats as cute catboys just like the reader does. The protagonist is a young abandoned cat that has been adopted by the café; initially nameless, he’s dubbed Shiro (“white”) by his co-workers (each of which represents a different cat breed).

As a 4-koma, it’s made up of many short stories, most only a few pages long. Some of the stories make use of the anthropomorphic-cat premise (paper bags are the best thing ever!), and many revolve around Shiro’s childish innocence and lack of experience with the world, but most of it is pretty much the same very mild character-interaction sitcom as any moe 4-koma, except instead of “cute girls eating pudding” it’s “cute catboys eating pudding” (or accidentally getting drunk on catnip, as the case may be). There’s some BL tease (mostly in the form of the older cats sexually harassing each other) and some mild fanservice; be warned that the protagonist is even more shotabait than he looks on the cover, so if you don’t want to see the occasional nekkid underage catboy butt you might want to give this one a miss. There’s also a couple of doses of crossdressing, because shoujo.

The art is polished if fairly generic, the catboys are cute, and the translation is decent, but unless you’re really into catboys, 4-koma, or the low-key nothing-happening-ness of this kind of story, you don’t need to stay up at night fretting over missing it. And I never did figure out whether the café’s human owner is supposed to be male or female.

So what can we conclude from this about Japanese web-first manga (or at least Comic Cyutt web-first manga)? These three works seem to favor episodic stories with lots of cute boys and a touch of crossdressing (Comic Cyutt knows its audience), but not all that much substance. I’ve still got the other three eManga releases to work through, and Renta! has a couple more Comic Cyutt titles available on their site, so we’ll see if these generalizations hold up.

Digital Delivery: The Beautiful Skies of Houou High, Vol. 2

These days it seems like digital manga is finally hitting its stride; between the major publishers finally getting on board, the flood of stuff put out by the Digital Manga Guild, and the few weird platform-limited Japanese projects (Renta!, Manga Reborn, MangaBox, ComicWalker), there’s a lot of stuff to (legally) read on (mostly) the screen of your choice. Unfortunately, aside from digital editions of print manga from the aforementioned major publishers, most of it is extremely low profile; you probably don’t even know it’s available, and even if you did, it’s probably not something you’re dying to read. Like this one.

The Beautiful Skies of Houou High, Vol. 2 cover The Beautiful Skies of Houou High, Vol. 2, by Aki Arata (Houou Gakuen Misora-gumi 2,  originally serialized in Comic Blade Avarus. Blade Comics edition 2009; Digital Manga Guild edition, 2014)

Back in 2011, DMP released the first volume of this 4-volume shoujo comedy series, and it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. I was reasonably sure we’d never see any more of it, but lo, the Digital Manga Guild is fulfilling its promise to bring totally unlicenseable stuff to English-speakers, so here we are with volume 2, available in a selection of digital formats from eManga (including convenient PDF download), or in Kindle and Nook formats from Amazon and B&N, respectively. (The first volume is out of print but very cheap on the secondary market; it’s also available digitally, for consistency.)

The first page of the manga is a plot recap, useful for those of us Anglophones who might have lost track in the intervening three years. Kei, our heroine, likes girls and has a pathological distaste of boys. Mom, who is not on board with the gay and wants Kei to snag a rich guy (“If you get pregnant, we win!”), manipulates her into enrolling her into an all-boys school (in the guise of a boy, of course), on the suggestion of cute perky evil-guy Yui, who is Up To Something but we haven’t found out what yet.

Volume 1 in 3-and-a-half panels.

Volume 1 in 3-and-a-half panels.

Most of this volume is fairly episodic comedy. V1 ended with the threat of a physical examination (Kei will be exposed!) and a hint of some new characters; these factors turn out to be connected in the form of that kind of narcissistic, self-dramatizing, occasionally crossdressing guy that shows up in shoujo comedies a lot, and his superdevoted manservant. Then we have the evil-genius shotabait twins playing detective to figure out why the school let a girl enroll (most of the main cast knows Kei’s secret); once they discover that Yui’s behind it, they start to scheme about how they can get Kei to cooperate in bringing him down (since Kei nixed the idea of just bumping him off – they’re evil, remember?) – of course, Yui finds out and lays the smackdown on them, because he’s even more evil. Then Kei goes home for summer break and gets harangued by Mom about why she hasn’t landed a loaded classmate yet and why she’s so unfeminine. Et cetera. And of course her phobia of men gets a lot of play; Kei has earned the title “prince of puke” because of her reaction whenever she is touched, however innocently, by her classmates.

I like the "salaryman donning a cool suit" one, myself.

I like the “salaryman donning a cool suit” one, myself.

In a certain way, this series reminds me a lot of Oresama Teacher; we’ve got the heroine who looks good in boy’s clothes and schmoozes all the girls (although for Kei’s it’s because she’s hot for them, rather than just getting all of her info on how to relate to girls from hanging out with guys, like Mafuyu), we’ve got the big scary guy the heroine bonds with over their shared love for a weird animal mascot character (in this case Usasy, a stripper hostess bunny-girl), we’ve got the masochistic guy who gets jealous every time the object of his obsession abuses someone else, we’ve got the school administration full of shady secrets, and we’ve got the cute, ukeish, perkily evil guy who somehow has a lot more control over the school than seems entirely reasonable.

No, I don't get it either.

Apparently, this started out as a semi-serious proposal for a real-life mascot character. No, I don’t get it either.

But the plot is completely different; no fighting, a lot less crazy, and higher dose of drama. Aside from wanting a hot girlfriend, Kei really doesn’t have any plans for the future; she tells her mother she can support herself and doesn’t need to marry (“These days, there are plenty of single women”), but as Mom points out, she has no skills and isn’t particularly good at anything. She hasn’t even figured out what her concentration will be; Yui casually states that they’re going to concentrate in social welfare together, and although she’s not happy about him making decisions for her, she doesn’t have any better ideas, and she’s starting to realize that this is a problem. Aside from Kei’s issues, quite a lot of this volume is about humanizing Yui; he’s still evil, but we start to get hints that he has reasons for it, and that he is maybe nicer than he seems… maybe.

Arata is still playing Yui’s motivation in getting a girl to enroll close to her chest, but at this point the overarching plot for the series seems to be pretty clear: Yui and Kousuke will teach Kei to get over her phobia of men, and Kei will teach Yui to be less evil. There’s also slight hints of a possible romantic relationship between Kei and Yui, in which case Yui had damn well better turn out to be a girl in drag, considering that Kei has already busted out the l-word (at least in the English translation).

Yui Evil >> Twins Evil

Yui Evil >> Twins Evil

I do vaguely enjoy this series, and I’ll keep reading if and/or when the rest of it comes out, but compared to the really good shoujo comedies out there it’s only so-so. I am amused that Kei is the second-butchest “guy” in the main cast (after Kousuke, who’s actually a softie), and I like Yui (cute perky evil femme uke dudes, mmm), but the comedy is only mildly funny and the drama is (so far) only mildly engaging. It’s a reasonably pleasant diversion, but you’ll probably have forgotten everything about it by the time you’ve put your e-reader down.

From a technical end, the translation and presentation is nicely professional aside from a rendering artifact on one page. But I don’t like that the ad pages come before the author’s note and omake 4-koma strips at the end of the book; if I hadn’t been compulsive-obsessive about flipping through all the pages I would probably have stopped at the first ad and missed them.