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.