Things I Love: A Liar In Love

A_Liar_In_Love_cover A Liar in Love, by Kiyo Ueda (Usotsuki wa Koi o Suru, originally serialized in HertZ. Taiyo Tosho edition 2010; Juné edition 2011)

I had a long commute to the middle of nowhere, so I finally got around to writing up this book. It’s one of my favorites, probably in the top twenty BL manga I’ve read (which is saying a fair bit, in that I own greater than 90% of all print-format BL ever published in English; I’m planning to get through all the digital stuff just as soon as I win the lottery, because geez, there’s a lot of it…). (And yes, I have more than twenty favorite BL manga. Don’t make me choose….)

BL tends heavily towards stories of first love of some kind, AKA “what is this strange feeling I have never felt before”. This typically involves high-school boys and their first crush, straight guys blindsided by the fact that they’ve fallen in love with a man, or man-izing jerks blindsided by the fact that they’ve fallen in love with anyone. This one, as you might guess from the title, is one of the latter.

The main character, Tatsuki, is a Hot Jerk whose philandering ways have left a trail of disgruntled (male) exes stretching back to the Stone Age. He’s on the permanent outs with his brother, who is understandably frustrated with his jerkishness. The story opens with said brother making the incredibly stupid move of calling up hot jerk to ask him to introduce his coworker Miura to some nice gay guys; coworker has just gone through a bad breakup and brother wants to help him out by setting him up on some dates. Hot jerk, being a total jerk, decides to seduce coworker and then dump him painfully, for the sole and specific purpose of ticking off his brother. So he motors over to the traditional Japanese restaurant where brother works, and gets a load of coworker, who is a Shy Dork. Who blushes. And has hot little glasses.

I approve. I approve immensely. OK, yes, he has terrible taste in sweaters, but you can’t have everything.

So hot jerk (who works from home and seems to have a lot of spare time) starts hanging around the restaurant radiating niceness and charm at succulent, succulent dork. Brother immediately susses out what hot jerk is up to and tries to warn shy dork off, but shy dork is a sweet innocent with no experience with hot jerks, and he falls for the protagonist like a ton of express-delivery rock. Hot jerk strings him along for a while, gloating over his evil plans, until he eventually realizes that he actually enjoys being shmoopy with shy dork, which totally freaks him out because it conflicts with his self-image as a Hot Jerk. So he is nasty to shy dork and makes him cry, and then he’s all like “ha ha, I showed them“, until of course he realizes that he really liked shy dork and he’s totally fucked this up and now he’s going to be brokenhearted forever and DIE ALONE. So then it’s his turn to get all weepy.

But of course in the end they patch things up and hot jerk reforms and becomes a devoted house-husband, making dinner for his sweetie when he comes home from a long hard day at the restaurant (do Japanese restaurants not let the employees eat the leftovers or something?). And then they live happily ever after in a state of domestic bliss. (If you think this constitutes a spoiler you have not read enough BL. Or romances in general, for that matter.)

This story has a bunch of elements that I like. I always appreciate stories from the seme’s point of view, succulent dork is succulent, and the emotional bits are suitably emotional. It also features two out gay guys, if you care about that sort of thing, and in fact takes a swipe at the “gay for you” trope; brother is very upset about hot jerk’s behavior and wants to save shy dork from his evil clutches, and around the two-thirds point he announces that he’s in love with shy dork and is going to take him away from hot jerk. Shy dork immediately points out to brother (correctly) that his affection is based on friendship rather than romance; he may love shy dork but not in the kind of way that leads to sexytimes. And it’s one of those stories where the philandering jerk realizes that he’s in love because he can’t get it up with anybody else, which is always good for a snicker.

The art is pretty, with lots of attention to Tatsuki’s suave good looks and Miura’s blushing adorableness, and the book has a smooth translation. Unless you just can’t stand romances with “a rake reforms” plots, you should totally read this one.

Advertisements

Anime Review: Tsuritama

Tsuritama_title

Tsuritama (12 episodes, 2012, Studio: A-1 Pictures, Director: Kenji Nakamura, aired on noitamina).

Tsuritama (which as far as I can tell translates roughly as “fishing ball”) is a goofy sci-fi fishing comedy from a couple of years back, which I have wanted to watch for a while but just now managed to finish (I’m not much of a video person, although that seems to be changing now that I have an iPad…). It’s available streaming on Crunchyroll (free with ads, or ad-less by subscription), and has a physical release from Sentai complete with dub (although I can’t imagine that it sold well enough to justify a dub – which is an indictment of the US anime market, not of the series).

Red-headed high school boy Yuki has had to transfer schools often due to his grandmother’s career (which is never specified but appears to involve gardening). This has left him with severe social anxiety, which he experiences as drowning in a spontaneously-generated pool of water but which everyone else sees as him making scary faces.

Tsuritama_drowning

As the story opens, Yuki and Grandma are in the process of moving to the small island of Enoshima. (Which is a real place; most of the landmarks featured in the series actually exist.) Also just-arrived (via train – or maybe not) is a super-genki blond cutie with a mind-control squirt gun and a talking goldfish that calls him Nii-san.* (Apparently, Haru speaks weird Japanese, but the Crunchyroll subtitles do not attempt to replicate this, which is probably for the best).

Tsuritama_Haru_haino

Cutie spots Yuki’s car passing by and is instantly mesmerized; he tracks down the house they’ve moved into (by telepathy or something, since they’ve been there all of 30 minutes), adds his name to the nameplate with a magic marker, and chirpily announces that his name is Haru, he’s an alien, and he’s going to live there. (Grandma is, amazingly enough, totally cool with this.)

Tsuritama_Haru_alien

Immediately afterwards, Haru shows up at Yuki’s high school with a fishing pole, insists that Yuki has to go fishing with him in order to save the world, and mind-control-squirts a grumpy classmate, Natsuki, into teaching them to fish. And there’s a turbaned guy with a pet duck and a personal SWAT team watching mysteriously from afar.

Tsuritama_classroom_squirt

Tsuritama_threesome

That’s just episode 1. It gets weirder.

It’s immediately clear that one of the main plot threads of Tsuritama is going to be Yuki and Natsuki learning to unbend and make friends with the aid of their own personal magical pixie dream boy.** It is also very quickly apparent that there is going to be A LOT of detailed information about fishing, from how to tie on a lure to what to do when you’ve hooked a tuna that’s stronger than you are. And for a while, Tsuritama is indeed all about fishing and friend-making and Haru’s indomitable genki-ness, with the weird burbling along happily in the background. Around the halfway point, though, the weird takes over: mass-hysteria goofy dances, Bermuda Triangle phenomena, a shady paramilitary organization in yellow rubber bunny suits, sightseeing aliens, and, yes, saving the world (or at least Enoshima) by going fishing.

Tsuritama_binoculars

If you prefer fiction where everything wraps up neatly and all is explained, Tsuritama is not for you. If, on the other hand, you are comfortable with a certain amount of nuttery and dream logic, it’s a fun little series. The gently absurdist humor comes with a side of adolescent male bonding, family problems, lots of fishing, and in the late episodes some fairly heavy drama, although it’s not likely that a series starring a glomp-happy fish boy is going to end in tragedy. It’s got cute boys, an ED that looks made from a calico quilt, and a well-endowed secondary character in a bikini top (in case you can’t watch an anime without boobies). The story moves along nicely in both the slice-of-life and the sci-fi drama segments, although, even allowing for the sci-fi comedy aspect, there are some obvious plot holes (the biggest of which is what is Grandma doing that lets them afford a house that nice? I want that house.).

Tsuritama_house

Visually, Tsuritama looks great, with clean lines, swirling schools of fish, and candy-colored backgrounds heavily indebted to the Photoshop posterize filter (although this style is notably more successful on cityscapes and flower gardens than on low-contrast domestic interiors). The animation is mostly smooth, although towards the middle the budget starts to run low and there’s some reused sequences and off-model moments. And the shy alien boy that shows up at the very end is super-cute.

Tsuritama_alien2

So if you enjoy brightly colored eccentricity and/or detailed descriptions of fishing, check out the first episode and see if its brand of genki fishy nuttery appeals to you. (And if you do watch the whole thing, make sure to watch the bit after the credits in the last episode.)

Tsuritama_face_squirt


*OK, it looks like a betta, not a goldfish, but I thought fewer people would know what a betta was, and anyway technically it’s neither of the above. Back

**Despite the fact that Haru is totally uke, there is no BL in this series. Although he does hang off of Yuki enough that there is room for rotten interpretations. (I would offer to bet my lunch money that there are doujinshi out there, but that’s a safe bet for nearly anything with more than one guy in it, so I won’t bother.) Back


Fun with ukiyo-e: Parody of Ebisu

Mitate Ebisu, print by Suzuki Harunobu, 1765, Tokyo National Museum.

Ebisu as a young hottie, with a toy fish (note wheels). Polychrome woodblock print, Suzuki Harunobu, 1765.

I came across this Suzuki Harunobu mitate print of Ebisu, which I quite like. (Original at the Tokyo National Museum; I’ve tweaked the color balance and brightness of all the images here.)

Ebisu is the god of fishermen, among other things, and is usually represented as a jolly old man with big earlobes and a fish, generally of unusual size.

Ebisu, print by Bunro, c. 1900.

Ebisu in his usual form, with a bad hat and a big fish. Polychrome woodblock print, Bunro, c. 1900. Now in the British Museum.

Mitate (parody) pictures are based on a famous composition or traditional subject (gods, historical figures, characters from literature or fable); some are relatively straightforwards illustrations, but they frequently change the personages into children, animals, etc. Here’s one of Ebisu reinterpreted as a child (one of a set of the Seven Lucky Gods as children).

One of the most popular types of mitate-e turns the subjects into beautiful young women (possibly a forerunner of the “genderswapped historical male characters as cute moe girls” dude-otaku thing). This print, however, turns Ebisu into a beautiful youth (possibly a forerunner of the “revisionist historical male characters as hot young guys” girl-otaku thing).

(Suzuki Harunobu did unusually many prints of attractive young men, compared to other contemporary artists. Perhaps he personally liked the topic, or perhaps he was merely willing to cater to buyers’ tastes; both men and women purchased images of pretty boys, and some contemporary reports indicate they sold well.)

It is often difficult to identify the sex of children and adolescents in pre-Meiji art, because clothing for sub-adults was not as strongly gendered as it is now (as I have discussed before), and the standard of fashionable beauty called for a sleekly elegant appearance in young people of both sexes. For this young man, as for many pictures of richly-dressed young hotties, the strongest clue to his sex is his hairstyle. Although the best indicator of adolescent maleness in the 17th-18th century, a shaved portion under the forelocks, is hidden under his headscarf, a portion of his topknot with distinctly male wrapping just peeks out at the back.

Mitate Ebisu, print by Suzuki Harunobu, 1765, Museum of Fine Arts.

Another impression of (almost) the same print.

Another version of this print, in the Museum of Fine Arts, is pulled from a different carving of the key block. Many ukiyo-e prints exist in multiple versions from different blocks. On the one hand, woodblocks eventually wore out; the carving wore down, or the wood became brittle and split. The delicate lines of faces were especially prone to wear, and were often repaired by cutting out the section and replacing it with an insert of new wood. On the other hand, if a print or artist was popular, knock-offs could appear, with or without the artist’s consent (if they were contemporary; many were produced years or decades later to feed the collector market).

Because of the elaborate patterning on the young man’s stylish (and appropriately nautically-themed) outfit, the MFA print would have required about 5-7 blocks. The TNM print, with its more coordinated color scheme, would need fewer; aside from this, the color blocks seem almost identical, but the black linework in the key block has some details that differ.

Comparison of facial detains of two prints of Mitate Ebisu.

Left: MFA print. Right: TNM print. Click for larger.

The main differences are in the face and left hand: the MFA print has smaller features, especially the eyes; a fuller lower face; and a rather poorly-drawn hand. The Tokyo print is cleaner and in better condition, which might suggest that it’s newer. However, comparing other prints by the artist leads me to believe that the TNM one is closer to Suzuki’s style (IANA art historian, so take that with a grain of salt); perhaps it was produced from a very careful copy of the original print, or perhaps it was just very well cared for. The MFA one might therefore be a later, somewhat clumsy repair. The other major difference between the two prints is that the cutie in the TNM print has a white fan tucked into his belt, while the MFA print has removed it, leaving only a little bit of the tip visible near the ties of the headscarf, again suggesting that the MFA print is the more recent state of the block.

Interestingly, both prints bungle the layering of the furisode. In the MFA print the layering at the neck and hem is dark grey, over dark pink, over light pink, but where they show along the edge of the sleeve it is light pink, light grey, and then light grey again; in the TNM print the layering at the hem is dark orange, reddish-orange, and light orange, while at the neck it’s dark orange, reddish-orange, and yellow, and at the sleeve it’s reddish-orange, yellow, and pinkish-grey. (In both cases the innermost layer at the neckline is an undergarment, which would not have had furisode sleeves.)

Why the fish is a toy fish, I have no idea. Maybe because he wouldn’t want to get his swank outfit all fishy.


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.


Fun with ukiyo-e: significant details

Suzuki Harunobu c. 1765 (later printing), Kotsuzumi o utsu wakashū. Print in LOC.

More shocking than it may at first appear. (Click for larger.)

In pursuit of a very desultory attempt to put together a post on furisode and its gender/status implications in pre-Meiji Japan (don’t hold your breath), I came across this lovely little item which amused me greatly (for reasons that will become apparent), and so I threw together a quick commentary on some points that might not be obvious to the modern observer.

Above: a woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765, now in the Library of Congress. (Note this is a later printing and possibly a re-carving of the original block, so I wouldn’t put too much faith in the color scheme. The LOC’s scan of the print is a little muddy so I’ve adjusted the color balance and brightness as well. The Met has slightly different, more sloppily printed version that might be pulled from a different block.)

At the barest surface level, the print shows an elegantly dressed young person playing a drum in an equally elegant setting. The player’s delicate features, narrow face, and graceful pose correspond to period conventions of elegantly androgynous beauty. Behind the player is an (elegant) alcove with a vase of flowers and a hanging wall-scroll, still a standard feature of traditional Japanese interior design. The scroll features an image of Hotei, one of the seven lucky gods, with his iconic sack.

Detail of print, showing wall scroll of Hotei

God of you’ll never guess what.

The top layer of the player’s chic and luxurious outfit is a brown jacket with a stylized pattern of birds and gusts of wind (or at least that’s what I think those forked things are, don’t quote me…); it is worn over three layers of kimono (grey with green stripes, red, and grey again) and an under-kimono with a fashionable red collar. (Three-layer kimono is currently regarded as very formal, but at the time it was merely very expensive.) The jacket and the three kimono are all of furisode cut, with exaggeratedly long sleeves; each layer is cut a little narrower at the center front and the inside of the sleeve to allow the inner layers to show. (The innermost kimono has a subtle stripe pattern; the scan isn’t clear enough to tell definitively but I suspect that the pattern was created not on the printing block itself but by embossing the paper afterwards, a decorative touch found on some prints.)

If you are aware of modern kimono etiquette, you would probably identify the subject as a young unmarried woman, which is currently the only class of person entitled to wear furisode. If you are hip to traditional Japanese hairstyles, however, you would be able to spot that this is actually a wakashū, a boy who is no longer a young child but is not yet an adult man. Therefore, as furisode are currently gendered female, you might conclude that this is a portrait of a crossdresser, possibly a kabuki female-role specialist.

But historically, furisode were not categorized as women’s clothing; they were categorized as children’s clothing. Furisode could be worn from infancy, but boys had to give them up at the coming-of-age ceremony, girls at marriage. This young man is entitled to wear furisode on account of his non-adult status, not because of genderbending. Besides being suitable for his age, furisode also allows him to advertise his family’s money and status: furisode was (and is) a form of conspicuous consumption, as the extra length of sleeve was not only completely impractical but also added considerably to the cost of the garment. Three-layer furisode is just rubbing it in.

So what we have so far is a portrait of an attractive and wealthy youth who is perhaps just a bit overdressed for hanging around the house practicing his music lessons. But there are actually other things going on here. Sexy, sexy things.

Under the rules of shudō, the traditional Japanese formulation of male-male erotic relationships, the receptive partner was expected to be within the wakashū age category; once a boy formally became a man he was no longer eligible as an object of desire. Furisode, as incompatible with adult status, emphasizes the player’s boy-hood, and thus his suitability as a potential lover. (Ladies also appreciated pretty young things, but I’m classifying this one as a shudō print because of the elements described below.)

Just to make sure you don’t miss the point, our rich young hottie is surrounded by visual double-entendres. The drum is a sexual innuendo. The lovely flowers in the alcove are chrysanthemums, a long-established reference to anal sex. And the god Hotei’s traditional beneficence to children had by this point become jokingly associated with a taste for beautiful youths.

Detail of print, showing chrysanthemums

FILTH.

So what this print is, in point of fact, is a pinup. This is the 18th century gay Japanese version of Betty Grable’s ass.

Betty Grable WWII pinup

200 years, 5000 miles, same idea.

Like Shakespeare, ukiyo-e is so much more fun when you can spot all the dirty jokes.


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.


Random Review: The Incredible Kintaro

I became interested in this title when someone working on the English edition posted on Twitter that it was one of the most ridiculous BL manga she’d ever seen. I spotted a copy on sale at Anime Boston, and as a fan of both ridiculousness and BL, I thought I’d check it out. TL;DR version: disappointing.

Cover of 801's edition of The Incredible KintaroThe Incredible Kintaro, by Naomi Guren ( Masaka no Kintarō, originally serialized in CitaCita; English edition 801 Media, 2014)

Our protagonist, Makoto (who is a cute uke tidbit of the “perky innocent” variety), is the grandson of the president of a prestigious boy’s prep school. The school’s motto is “Heart, Lust, Body”, representing the three things Granddad decrees essential in a man: a noble soul, a strong body, and being good in bed. On Granddad’s deathbed, he announces that the new president of the school will be whichever of the teachers that can ring Makoto’s bells, as it were. Makoto, who is not on board with this plan, recruits the help of his childhood friend, the titular Kintaro, to fend off the lecherous contestants.

In the folkloric legends of Kintarō, Kintarō, in his youth, was a super-strong little boy with a woodcutting axe and one of those bib/apron things that Japanese toddlers wore in Days Of Yore, famous for wrestling monsters and other feats of strength and bravery. Guren’s Kintaro is a buff dude with a magical axe and superior fighting skills (and he briefly wears that bib/apron thing, although on him it’s more of a muscle shirt), but the story has otherwise no connection whatsoever to the folktales, and it’s completely unclear to me why the original Kintarō is being referenced at all.

The Incredible Kintaro is trying to run on two things: rude humor and gratuitous smut. Unfortunately, it does neither well. The plot, such as it is, consists of assorted scenarios in which Makoto is captured and molested by one of the teachers, mostly in completely preposterous ways (robot sex! flower sex!); then, at the last second, Kintaro bursts in and lays the smackdown on the molester with his signature martial arts move, the “Shame Strike”, which involves mashing his naked gahoolies into the perp’s face, leaving them either too disgusted or too aroused to resist. (Both Makoto and Kintaro spend a phenomenal fraction of the book in the altogether, if that’s the sort of thing you go for.) Since it is obvious from the very beginning that Kintaro totally wants to jump Makoto’s bones and Makoto totally wants to jump Kintaro’s bones, you’d think they’d just do the horizontal rhumba and announce that the competition is therefore over, but that would mean the book would end by chapter one. So they don’t actually get it on until the very end, after the situation with the school has been resolved in a way that is actually sensible.

To a certain extent, The Incredible Kintaro reminds me of Rize Shinba’s Mister Mistress (available digitally through SuBLime), in that the main point of the book is to have the uke molested in ridiculous ways (demoniacally possessed pickled jellyfish strips!). The difference is that Mister Mistress is funny, sexy, and has an engaging central relationship, whereas The Incredible Kintaro is just dumb. All characters are one-note, the relationship between Makoto and Kintaro is bland, the molestation scenarios are not sexy, and even the humor, although certainly over-the-top (and very X-rated), is not energetic or inventive enough to be funny. If the thing you really, really want out of BL is shameless naked-dudeparts-in-the-face jokes, you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, give it a miss.