About Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has been writing reviews of books and comics (of various persuasions) at her blog Soliloquy in Blue since 2006. From 2008 to 2010, she wrote for PopCultureShock’s Manga Recon, serving as the Senior Manga Editor from 2009 onwards. She has also written for CBR’s Comics Should Be Good and participates in The NANA Project series of roundtables (along with Danielle Leigh and Melinda Beasi) that are hosted there. After contributing to Manga Bookshelf for a year, she finally caved to peer pressure and officially joined the team in June 2011. Aside from reading, Michelle’s main passion is music (especially popular music produced between ’71 and ’74), though she also enjoys fountain pens, nail polish, genre television, and attempting to broaden her culinary horizons. She lives in Florida.

Let’s Get Visual: A Tale of Two Series

MICHELLE: You didn’t think we were going to let a CLAMP MMF go by without devoting a special Let’s Get Visual column to it, did you? (Insert a Hokuto Sumeragi “ho ho ho” laugh here.) It’s an absolute must for a group like CLAMP, whose output is so diverse, not merely in the realms of story and demographic, but also artistically speaking. In fact, I had a pretty tough time choosing which images to talk about today. How about you, Melinda?

MELINDA: Yes, there’s so much to choose from! Though CLAMP is nearly always clearly distinguishable as CLAMP, they manage to do that while also significantly varying their style from series to series, especially when they’re writing for different demographics.

MICHELLE: I wish I had the artistic vocabulary to really thoroughly describe these subtle variations, but I’m afraid I don’t. Still, this diversity inspired Melinda and I to compare two CLAMP series with different art, but similar stories. Legal Drug has been described as a prototype for xxxHOLiC, as it features a hyper protagonist (Kazahaya) and his more stoic companion (Rikuo) who are asked to perform various odd, supernatural-related jobs by the precognitive manager of a store (Kakei). Kazahaya is quick to proclaim that they’re not friends, but is forced to begrudgingly thank Rikuo for several timely rescues. This is a setup very similar to the initial relationship between Watanuki and Doumeki in xxxHOLiC.

MELINDA: Personally, I think you could even make an argument for Kakei’s companion Saiga as a weird prototype for Mokona.

MICHELLE: Yeah, I guess he does spend the majority of his time either sleeping or pulling off surprising domestic tasks.

Anyway, how about you start us off with the pages you’ve chosen?

MELINDA: Sure! I’ve picked out a couple of different scenes from volume twelve, and the reason I chose that volume is that it’s really where Watanuki’s reality starts to fall apart. At first, he’s simply having a series of strange dreams, but by the end of the volume, dreams and reality are melding into each other, one after the other, to the point where it’s impossible for him to tell the difference between them.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

xxxHOLiC, Vol. 12, Pages 30-32 (Del Rey)

The first scene I’ve chosen comes in early in the volume, and it’s very obviously a dream world. The ever-present blossoms in the wind, Yuuko’s train of butterflies, the wind in the air, and even just the sense of space feels entirely like a dream—like something clearly outside our waking reality. It’s beautiful, but it’s expected, and even when there’s a sense of eeriness, it feels friendly and familiar.

xxxHOLiC, Vol. 12, Pages 138-141 (Del Rey)

The second scene, on the other hand, comes in much later, when Watanuki is being shuttled from dream to dream to dream, never knowing if he might finally be awake. The scene starts out simply with the kind of lunch picnic he might have with Himawari any day of the week. The backgrounds are sparse and the panels sort of matter-of-fact. The only hint at first that something might be off, is the hole Watanuki notices in the wall behind Himawari. And even though the scene becomes comedic, with the scaly hand popping out of the hole to steal Watanuki’s sherbet, it feels very sinister to me—not just because Himawari never notices what’s happening, but because it’s intruding on what feels to Watanuki like normal life, letting him know that he’s somehow *still* not awake. Unlike the earlier dream scene, which feels so perfectly dreamlike, this one reads as something more like madness, which is much scarier to me as a reader.

MICHELLE: My first reaction when I saw the scaly hand stealing the sherbet was to deem it “cute” but that’s because it’s been so long since I read xxxHOLiC that I had utterly forgotten the context of this scene. Now that you’ve informed me, I read it as sinister. It’s definitely something that could look like “Watanuki’s everyday life” to the casual reader as much as to Watanuki himself, at first.

MELINDA: I probably am letting the context influence me, which maybe makes this not the greatest example for a Let’s Get Visual column! But I do think it’s interesting how differently CLAMP treats these two scenes, when they’re both representations of Watanuki’s dream world.

MICHELLE: Oh, I think they’re fine examples! What you’re basically showing here is that in xxxHOLiC, or at least in these scenes, CLAMP draws the supernatural in a way that blends in with the everyday world. It’s a very simple approach, free of some of the bells and whistles that my images from Legal Drug possess.

MELINDA: Well, let’s take a look at those, then!

Legal Drug, Vol. 2, Pages 40-43 (TOKYOPOP)

MICHELLE: These pages are from a scene in the second volume of Legal Drug. Kazahaya and Rikuo have just rescued a magical kitty, and in gratitude, the kitty has led them to the park where its powers are strongest and transformed into the images of the person each boy wants to see most.

What struck me strongly here is the way the kitty begins to unravel. Seriously, the fact that it’s just one little toe of his little paw really gets to me somehow. Somewhat like xxxHOLiC, there’s that feeling of “You thought things were normal, but really they are not.” As the transformation is underway, we get several reaction shots from the boys (with a bevy of speedlines), resulting in a page layout far busier than xxxHOLiC. The two-page spread is quintessential CLAMP: two slim and lovely ladies with long flowy hair speckled with white ink. The tight panels of the boys’ eyes include more speedlines to help convey their shock.

Honestly, besides the slightly more ornate style here, it’s the speedlines that really convey the biggest tonal difference between these series to me. It’s presumptuous to declare that CLAMP “matured” between the two series, but it really does feel as though they realized they no longer needed to rely on such tricks to convey the protagonist’s feelings. Less is more!

MELINDA: Well, I think it’s probably worth bringing up the fact that Legal Drug ran in a shoujo magazine, where those kinds of flourishes might have been expected, unlike xxxHolic, which had to fit in to the style of a seinen magazine. I mean, CLAMP is always CLAMP, but there’s always a clear sense of what demographic they’re drawing for—even in two series as similar as these.

MICHELLE: That’s a good point. I certainly don’t mean to disparage the style of Legal Drug or insinuate that it’s inferior, but in terms of personal preference, I simply like the cleaner, restrained style of xxxHOLiC more. I mean, just check out how the panel shapes themselves are different. It’s really neat to compare them!

MELINDA: Oh, I completely agree! And though I also have a preference for the artwork in xxxHolic, I do appreciate the shoujo flourishes for their classic flair. More and more, I find the differences fascinating, and I was really surprised, actually, at how easy it was to tell which demographic CLAMP was writing for simply by looking at the artwork of their series in preparation for this Feast. I don’t think I expected it to be so obvious.

MICHELLE: I wouldn’t have, either. But going forward I’ll be making a special point to notice how they adapt their style to the magazine!

Let’s Get Visual: The Jibblies

MICHELLE: So, in our last installment of Let’s Get Visual we celebrated the pretty, so it seems only fitting that this time we devote our attentions to images that make us shudder with a feeling I like to call “the jibblies.” Just like beauty, creepy is a subjective thing, so we’ve each chosen a variety of images that get our personal hackles rising.

Melinda, you want to go first this time?

MELINDA: Sure!

So, as I was perusing my manga collection for things that creep me out, it became increasingly clear to me that I’m very simple when it comes to what scares me. All it takes to really get to me is a single disturbing image—especially one that distorts something human into something sinister. I’m apparently not scared of monsters so much as I am of monsters in human clothing.

My first example comes from Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare. In this series, a group of teenagers is regularly drawn into a shared dreamworld in which they each appear as physical manifestations of their own worst fears. Some of these are visually more disturbing than others. The series’ main character, Ichijo, for instance, most fears his own confusion about gender, so his skirt-wearing dream self is really horrifying only to him. Some of the other students, however, wear their fears in a much more visually distorted manner. This short spread features two of those students.

After School Nightmare, Vol. 1 (Go! Comi)

First, you’ll see a student who appears only as an arm and hand, twisting itself around Ichijo. Second, a girl appears with giant cavities replacing her face and chest. While the second of these has the most stunning, immediate affect on my psyche, the first creeps up on me as I try to move away from the page. Both images stick with me long after I’ve put the book down, and this seems to be the real key to scaring the bejeezus out of me. If I can’t get the image out of my mind, it easily haunts me for days. That’s the power of a single, shocking image.

MICHELLE: My first thought upon hearing of your aversion to “a single disturbing image” is that you shouldn’t read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, followed by the thought that you should read it.

My reaction to the image above differs from yours, though, in that while these images certainly provoke in me an “ew” reaction, they aren’t the type that haunt me. I definitely think that the slinky arm creature is the more creepy in the image you displayed. For me, it’s because the gaping images of emptiness are immediately recognizable as symbols for what that character is feeling, but what on earth is causing that other student to appear like a grasping, creeping arm?! I feel like their circumstances in life might ultimately be the more disturbing! (This comes from someone who’s read only one volume of After School Nightmare, so I don’t know if this turns out to be the case.)

MELINDA: I think part of what makes the gaping holes in the second student so horrifying for me, is that (for whatever reason) I’m strongly affected by a lack of face. I have the same reaction to images of people with blank faces. It creeps the hell out of me when I can’t assess a person’s feelings/personality from their expression. It feels very threatening to me.

Perhaps it’s further evidence of how much a face means to me, actually, that both of my follow-up images are pretty much face-only. First, from CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, we have the face of a dead child who pleads with her mother to avenge her, and secondly, from Jun Mochizuki’s Pandora Hearts, the face of a girl that reveals itself to be a monster underneath.

Tokyo Babylon, Vol. 4 (TOKYOPOP)

Pandora Hearts, Vol. 1 (Yen Press)

I actually find both of these to be creepier than the images from After School Nightmare, though they are much simpler. Something they have in common is that they are presented against a stark, black background, giving the distorted expressions full focus. After that, though, they are nearly opposites of each other. The face of the girl in Tokyo Babylon is all too real, distorted by the power of raw emotion, while the character in Pandora Hearts is revealed to have no emotion at all, or at least none that matched what was on her false human face. Yet in the end, which is more monstrous?

MICHELLE: It’s interesting how much the things that creep us out reveal about us, isn’t it? I’d wager you get the same threatening feeling from the girl who is revealed to be a monster underneath as you do the girl with no face at all. People pretending to be what they’re not, hiding their real selves, etc. That’s definitely something all of us have experienced at one time or another.

Getting back to actual attempts at visual analysis, those deep black backgrounds really do focus the reader’s eye on what the mangaka wants them to see. It’s as if they’re saying, “I don’t want you to be distracted by anything else.”

MELINDA: Your analysis of me is spot-on, that’s for sure!

And yes, I think the black backgrounds achieve exactly that, while also evoking our natural fear of the dark, or what we can’t see. It’s a powerful tool for both showing us something and not showing us something, if that makes sense.

MICHELLE: It definitely does.

Now I’m reflecting on what the images I’ve chosen say about me. There’s hardly a face among them, for one thing, because I am less creeped out by shocking images than I am by imagining an experience, specifically an experience during which one is forced to endure something horrible for a really, really long period of time with no means of escape. Ugh, just thinking about the short story my images come from—”The Enigma of Amigara Fault” by Junji Ito—has given me the jibblies while typing this paragraph!

Gyo, Volume 2, “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” (VIZ Media)

Page 178

Page 185

Page 198

Page 203

Page 204

I’ve chosen this particular sequence of images from this short story because they illustrate the entire plot without me needing to introduce it beforehand. By now you probably don’t need me to explain that when the TV news reports on a mountainside full of people-shaped holes revealed by a recent earthquake, people flock to the site and can’t be dissuaded from climbing into their personal holes, where long, icky agony awaits them. At first the site seems innocent enough, if a bit strange, but soon people are walking into holes, having nightmares about what happens to you in a hole, and eventually discovering the exit and…. Holy crap, it’s terrifying. This is the kind of thing that will haunt me for ages.

I’m honestly trying to analyze Ito’s artistic techniques dispassionately here, but I find that the disturbing power of the images is so great that it is affecting my ability to reason even now!

MELINDA: Hmmm, I’m wondering if what it’s saying is that while I’m terrified of people betraying me, you’re terrified of your environment betraying you. Or something like that.

In any case, these panels are undeniably creepy. Even if they creep me out in a less personal way, I can certainly see what’s giving you the jibblies! Interestingly, we again see the human form distorted, though in this case it’s happening sort of *to* the character we’re relating to rather than in front of him. (Maybe I’m afraid of the people I trust being compromised, and you’re afraid of yourself being compromised?)

This has a Twilight Zone feel to me, where some unexplained supernatural phenomenon is turning the lives of ordinary people into a nightmare. The artist does a great job of evoking the real terror of what’s happening, too. The texture of the stone walls around the man gives the images a three-dimensional look that makes it feel more real than a lot of what we see in manga. It’s the only thing that has that kind of thick texture, too, so it really stands out.

MICHELLE: More like I’m terrified of taking a step that can’t be undone and ending up in eternal torment because of it!

And yes, now that I’ve regained my senses, I agree that it’s the realistic three-dimensional detail that really makes it so disturbing. The details of the setting itself establish it firmly in the here and now, and then we’re shown that within the here and now exists something completely alien and unexplainable! Regarding the texture of the stone walls… it’s that bit of dialogue about how they’re carved to prevent backtracking that really gets to me. It’s mute, immobile stone, and it’s going to be your tormentor for the next several months, slowly inflicting more gruesome horrors upon you than something living could ever do. Uh-oh… jibblies.

MELINDA: There, there!

MICHELLE: Thanks. I also really love the bottom left panel on page 185, when you see the outside world from inside the tunnel. Interestingly, this is an angle from which the guy who just entered the hole could never have seen the characters. He’s got his back turned to this world, and is resolutely leaving it behind. And, too, I love the “less is more” approach here. We don’t see the distorted figure actually emerge from the mountain and thrash around terrorizing people. One glimpse is enough to confirm what has happened. It’s almost kind of elegant in its structure.

MELINDA: Yeah, I agree, the threat of what is about to happen is actually scarier by itself than it might be if we actually saw it happen. Or at least it’s creepier that way.

MICHELLE: Well, I fear this column has actually been more about us than the art, but it’s been the art that made us feel that way, and that’s something, isn’t it?

MELINDA: It is!

MICHELLE: So, that’s it for us this month. What gives you the jibblies?

Let’s Get Visual: Fruits Basket

MICHELLE: So, we’ve been talking about Fruits Basket all week, but I’m certainly not yet weary of the topic. How about you, Melinda?

MELINDA: I suspect I could discuss Fruits Basket for weeks on end!

MICHELLE: Me too. We’ve already discussed the general awesomeness of the story and characters this week, but one thing we haven’t talked much about yet is the art. Takaya’s style evolves a good bit over the course of the series, and while I used to think I preferred her earlier style, I’ve lately realized that that is not the case at all. Do you have a preference yourself?

MELINDA: Hm, well, I definitely appreciate the prettiness of the series’ early volumes, and I do think there is some detail lost later on, but one thing the series never lacks is expressiveness, and that goes for the artwork as much as anything else.

MICHELLE: I think the expressiveness actually improves later on, at least insofar as Tohru is concerned, since she loses those really, really, really big eyes of hers. I will forever mourn the changes to my beloved Hatori, though, who goes from looking like this to looking like this.

It’s not that he’s become unattractive; he’s just lost a certain bishounen quality that I had certainly appreciated.

MELINDA: I do think Takaya does a wonderful job of aging the characters subtly over the course of the story, and I’m not necessarily just referring to their physical ages. I think she matures them overall, letting their outsides reflect their insides.

MICHELLE: That is definitely true, especially with Kyo, Yuki, and Momiji. Probably Momiji most stunningly of all.

MELINDA: Yes, there is quite a bit made of Momiji’s growing up, isn’t there? And though it’s more difficult to see that transformation as “subtle,” it’s certainly striking and oddly poignant.

MICHELLE: Takaya really does well with “striking” and “poignant,” doesn’t she? Which leads us to our specific picks for this month’s column!

Many of the most powerful and affecting moments in Fruits Basket occur between just two characters. To exemplify this trend, Melinda and I have both chosen scenes starring only Kyo and Tohru.

Melinda, why don’t we start with you?

Volume 15, Chapter 87, Pages 129-134 (TOKYOPOP)

MELINDA: Okay, well, I’ve chosen a scene from late in volume fifteen. After losing his temper in a confrontation with Yuki, Kyo returns to his classroom to find Tohru waiting for him, alone. In terms of script alone, the scene is not especially remarkable. There are some dramatic moments in Kyo’s inner monologue, but they’re both being careful not to *say* anything out of the ordinary. What makes the scene really work, though, is their body language.

At this point in the series, both Kyo and Tohru are just barely beginning to realize how they feel about each other, and Takaya plays this beautifully. The way Tohru lights up the moment she realizes Kyo is in the room, Kyo’s impulse to lean against her, their excited nervousness about being close, and especially Tohru’s last page alone—you can actually feel the tension between them in every panel. It’s so well done.

I especially like the last panel, with a flushed Tohru hurrying out of the frame. Somehow, leaving us with the empty space behind her keeps us lingering in the moment, much as she would herself, if she hadn’t been called away. There’s a sense there that the moment still looms large for her, too, even as she’s hastily left it behind, emphasized by the flowers still present in the frame. Like her absence in the frame is saying, “Really intense and possibly scary feelings happened here… run away, run away!” Does that make any sense?

MICHELLE: It absolutely makes sense! I’m always interested in how mangaka use open space, and I think you’re quite right that in that final panel it’s being used to keep us in place while Tohru dashes off. On the first page, the oddly tall panel of Tohru alone in the classroom employs empty space to emphasize how she really is the only one there.

This example reminds me of your pick for our “Duds” column, Baseball Heaven, and how the artist in that case utterly failed to establish convincing body language between two characters who were meant to be attracted to each other. Perhaps Ellie Mamahara needs to read more Fruits Basket!

MELINDA: Oh, good call, Michelle! Yes, that’s the perfect choice for contrast here. Everything that’s missing in that scene from Baseball Heaven is demonstrated spectacularly here, and as a result, this actually plays as a love scene much more convincingly, despite not actually being one. Even the use of small frames to emphasize the hand or face—something that just felt distracting and fragmented in Mamahara’s scene—adds to the tension here. It’s wonderfully done.

So what about you, Michelle? What scene did you choose?

Volume 22, Chapter 128, Pages 96-99 (TOKYOPOP)

MICHELLE: The scene I’ve chosen is from volume 22, quite near the end of the series. Tohru has been hospitalized and her friends have barred Kyo from seeing her while she recovers, since she gets stressed at the mention of his name.

As Kyo makes his nervous way to the hospital, the size and shape of the panels reflect his mental state. They’re cramped, dark, and dominated by his inner monologue. “Do I really still like her? What do I like about her?” We catch incomplete glimpses of the things Kyo passes on his journey, because he is so wrapped up in his thoughts that he too is hardly noticing them. Finally he arrives at the hospital, and the tension as he catches Uotani’s eye is palpable.

And then… Tohru appears and the world falls away. Suddenly, everything is so clear. The doubts are wiped away as if they have never been, because the minute he sees her, it is so very simple. “I love her.” Even as Kyo’s focus narrows to include only Tohru, the pages still have a wide-open and airy feeling that suggests gentleness and infinite possibility. This is the first time Kyo has really allowed himself to acknowledge these feelings, and it’s so beautifully done that it gives me goosebumps.

MELINDA: Oh, absolutely, I have the same reaction here! Everything you’ve said about the size and tone of the panels is exactly spot-on. Also, watching Kyo’s face the few times we see it is striking, panel-to-panel. His first expression, as he’s approaching the hospital, is one of extreme trepidation, and it feels to me that he’s sort of hiding behind his bangs. He doesn’t want to be seen by anyone, especially someone like Uotani, whose gaze he reacts so intensely to. He’s terrified of his own feelings and of screwing things up, and he knows that he’s historically bad at dealing with emotional situations. He’s simply terrified on all fronts.

Then, when he sees Tohru, all of that just drops away, leaving him with an expression of pure longing and vulnerability we’ve really not seen on him before. Just as the air opens up, so does Kyo, completely unguarded for one long moment. It’s really stunning. I think both of these scenes we’ve chosen would play just the same with all the text removed—they’re so much driven by the emotion in the artwork.

MICHELLE: Longing, vulnerability and sheer wonder, I think. 🙂

And yes, I think we have a knack for picking scenes where text is not really necessary. Even here, body language is certainly telling a lot of the story for us, even in small ways like Kyo’s tensed, half-flexed arm and clenched fist as he finally reaches his destination. You can almost see him willing himself to get through this without messing up.

MELINDA: There’s just so much emotional nuance here, in every panel. When I’m reading scenes like this in context, these are details I don’t consciously notice as I let the emotions just sweep me along, but when we actually take the time to break it down like this, I can’t help but be amazed by how much thought has gone into each line on the page.

MICHELLE: Me too. It sounds like we’ve convinced ourselves that, yet again, Fruits Basket is awesome.

MELINDA: Indeed we have!

MICHELLE: Thank you, Melinda, for joining me once again! And to those reading this column. Do you have a favorite artistic moment in Fruits Basket? Tell us about it in the comments!

Let’s Get Visual: Mono no Aware

MICHELLE: It’s the last Saturday of the month, and that means it’s time for another Let’s Get Visual column! Joining me as always is Melinda Beasi, from Manga Bookshelf. This month, we’ve chosen images that convey the feeling of mono no aware, which Wikipedia defines as, “the awareness of impermanence, or the transience of things, and a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing.”

If I’m interpreting that definition correctly, there appears to be a subtle difference between mono no aware and outright nostalgia, where the former is more of-the-moment (Honey and Clover springs to mind here) while the latter would be something like the retrospective narration in Ai Yazawa’s NANA.

What’s your take on it, Melinda?

MELINDA: I actually feel rather unclear myself, so I’m hoping that between you and our generous readers I’ll gain a better understanding via this column. Though I’ve read the Wikipedia entry, along with several other web pages that attempt to explain the concept, I’m not entirely sure I understand the true essence of mono no aware. I’ll do my best, of course, to take a stab at it!

MICHELLE: As will I! And if we do get it wrong, generous readers, please go easy on us!

What images have you chosen to talk about? (Click images to enlarge.)

Blue, Pages 224-end (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)

MELINDA: Well, since we do focus on visuals here, I chose a series of panels from the end of Kiriko Nananan’s bittersweet yuri romance, Blue, published in English by Fanfare/Ponent Mon. To a great extent, I think the entire manga exemplifies mono no aware, at least as I understand it at this time, as its primary romance seems obviously transient from the beginning. There’s never a sense that its protagonists, Kirishima and Endo, have a long-term future together, so the tone is wistful throughout. Every detail, down to the artist’s stark drawing style, suggests a gentle melancholy, even in the characters’ happiest moments.

As you can see, the story’s final pages are nearly text-free. After exchanging restrained parting words, Kirishima rides off to Tokyo in a train, leaving Endo on the platform, smiling sadly. As the train pulls away, Kirishima turns and leans against the door, finally letting her tears fall, unseen by Endo.

Not only do these panels express the sadness of an (apparently) inevitable parting, but they deliberately display this in the simplest, most beautiful way possible. Nananan’s barely toned artwork accents the slightest movement, giving enormous weight to a single teardrop—even to a single fold in Kirishima’s clothing. This sadness is elegant in every way, down to the strands of black hair tumbling over Kirishima’s fingers in the books’ final frame. It’s gorgeous, truly, and so simply bittersweet.

Though, as I’ve said, I’m not entirely sure I fully understand mono no aware, these panels perfectly illustrates what I think it might be. I hope someone will tell me if I’m wrong or right.

MICHELLE: I think you’ve got it right, because we can tell that Kirishima realizes that this is the last time she is going to see Endo. She still loves her, but their time together is over. It’s a very sad scene, but it’s also a beautiful scene, and because this heartbreaking moment is depicted with such care and such clarity, I think it qualifies as mono no aware.

MELINDA: I’m relieved to know that you think so!

So what have you chosen to share with us tonight?

Shugo Chara!, Volume 10, Pages 148-149 (Kodansha Comics)

MICHELLE: I’ve chosen a two-page spread from the tenth volume of Peach-Pit’s magical girl series, Shugo Chara!. The series has followed its protagonist, Amu Hinamori, since she was in the fourth grade, and now her final days of sixth grade are drawing nigh. She and her friends are responsible for planning the graduation ceremony and Amu has gone to check out the state of the auditorium.

When she gets there, Amu is stunned by the sight of a room full of empty chairs. It’s silent and still, and its emptiness is only emphasized by the barrel ceiling. The sight reminds her of the many things that have happened at school and with her new friends, times when this room was full of life, but there’s more to it than that. There is still one more occasion where they will all be together—graduation. Things are not quite over for them, this room will once more be peopled by those whom Amu cares about, but still, the knowledge that change is imminent makes Amu wistful somewhat in advance.

Maybe the difference between mono no aware and nostalgia can be summed up as “these days will never come again” versus “those were the days.”

MELINDA: What a perfect choice for illustrating that point! You’re absolutely right, the wistfulness here is for the present much more than it is for the past. She’s living in the very moment she mourns, struck by the warmth of the present and its imminent loss all at once. What a lovely example, Michelle!

MICHELLE: Thanks! This image was the inspiration for this column, actually. I’ve certainly read other series that employ mono no aware—I loved that aspect of Honey and Clover before I even knew that it had a specific name—but I was struck by how this one spread conveyed the same idea almost completely wordlessly. “Living in the very moment she mourns” is a beautiful way to put it.

MELINDA: So I suppose it’s up to our readers now to let us know how well we’ve done in our attempt to interpret mono no aware?

MICHELLE: Indeed! And if anyone has images they’d like to share, please feel free! Also, please come back and join us next month for a special Wild Adapter-themed edition of Let’s Get Visual to coincide with the Manga Moveable Feast being hosted at Manga Bookshelf the week of June 19th through 25th!

Let’s Get Visual: Funny Pages

MICHELLE: The wait is over.. a new Let’s Get Visual is here! We examined intensely emotional moments in our last column, so this time we’re going in the opposite direction by highlighting pages that make us laugh.

I’ve got to say, finding a couple of pages that genuinely made me giggle was much harder than finding ones that made me sniffle. Did you have a similar experience?

MELINDA: Actually, no, I giggle pretty easily and at a wide variety of things. My real challenge was picking just one scene!

MICHELLE: I certainly smile at amusing things, but I guess my threshold for outright laughter is pretty high. I’d be a good contestant on Make Me Laugh!

Still, I was able to find a pair of pages that had just the right combination of silly, cute, and absurd to appeal to me. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Silver Diamond, Volume 1, Pages 106 and 110 (TOKYOPOP)

As the artist (Shiho Sugiura) herself points out, what we have here is essentially a cliché. The character from another world or another time comes to the present day and freaks out over things like television and cars. What makes this scene so great to me is the fact that the character doing the freaking out is Koh, an excitable talking snake (who, incidentally, is highly venomous).

Something about a slanty-eyed, fanged critter going, “Whoa, what’s that guy?!” makes me crack up every time. He thinks everything is a creature, including the stove, whom he unwisely challenges to a fight. In the second example, he’s about to attack the clock when he’s stopped by Chigusa, a human transplant from the other world, who is able to show wisdom only because he himself previously made the same mistakes.

It’s simple, to be sure, but it’s just so durn cute! When I first read it, it made me love and sympathize with Koh instantly.

MELINDA: I’m a fan of this series as well, and Koh is my favorite character, so I can definitely relate to your fondness for him here. I think part of what makes him work so well, is that Sugiura doesn’t try to give him human features (other than speech), so not only is it funny to see a snake making all these comments, it’s a little bit poignant too, the way Sugiura draws him, which makes the humor hit just that much harder. Super-cute animal designs are all well and good, but a more realistic character can be much more touching, just for being more real. And something you care about is a lot funnier than something you don’t, at least in my experience.

As I type this out, I realize that the humor I enjoy most always contains a bit of poignance as well. Is it just me?

MICHELLE: Oh, that’s a really good point! Perhaps it’s simultaneously funny and endearing because he continues to look like a snake throughout, and hasn’t been given any over-exaggerated, human-like expressions to convey his surprise. It makes it seem more like we really are seeing how a snake would genuinely try to process these things.

And no, it is certainly not just you. Plus, if you consider a person’s character when writing humor, that just gives you a whole other layer to play with. Some things are funny because of who said them, after all, and not merely what was said.

MELINDA: I think there’s really very little in our lives that we process with only one emotion, and humor and affection work really well together. Koh’s appearance as a regular snake helps make him look vulnerable simply by virtue of his size, despite the fact that he’s pretty fierce, which makes him even more endearing.

Sugiura also does a great job of creating a sort of whirlwind tour of the wondrous Earth “creatures” with a lot of slanted, non-standard panels, cramped pretty close together, which makes the whole thing read funnier.

MICHELLE: Indeed, I was remembering that How to Draw Shojo Manga advocated using diagonal panels to show that a character is off-balance in a particular situation, so it makes sense Sugiura would use them to convey the dizzying onslaught poor Koh is experiencing.

Shall we move on to your selection? It looks pretty poignant, too!

Yotsuba&!, Volume 6, Pages 78-79 (Yen Press)

MELINDA: It certainly is! So, I went very simple with this for a couple of reasons. First of all, the humor is entirely visual. In fact, it wouldn’t need to be in English for us to get the humor completely. I’d submit, too, that much of the humor, especially on the second page, relies on the story being displayed for us one panel at a time, so it could only exist in comics. The humor is in the still shots, snapped one-by-one, which slow the action to a crawl, without the tonal messiness of slow-motion.This effect can’t be achieved with the same kind of clarity in animation or live action.

Perhaps the bigger reason why I chose this, however, is that it relies on slapstick humor, which usually doesn’t work for me at all. I almost never laugh at scenes where the humor is based on someone slipping on a banana peel or a thousand other types of stumbles, pratfalls, and rake handles to the face that are essential to the genre. It leaves me completely cold. Yet here, as Yotsuba’s inattention to where she’s going sends her tumbling over a hill, I can’t help but laugh, both at her fall and at the older girls’ stunned reaction as they watch it happen. Somehow, that’s hilarious. And, just as with your selection, it’s hilarious because we care, or perhaps more to the point, the author cares. He loves Yotsuba as much as we do, so we’re all reacting together, unable to keep ourselves from laughing, but without any kind of cruel glee being taken in Yotsuba’s misfortune. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s significant.

MICHELLE: I react to slapstick the same way you do, but that tumble is so amusing, too, because Yotsuba was trying so hard. She really, really wanted the picture of her on the bike to be awesome, but because she was thinking more about that than actually riding, this happens.

It’s humor that relies entirely on human nature. The part the makes me laugh most is her wide-eyed, extreme close-up eagerness on that first page, because who hasn’t known a kid who was totally excited to not only be photographed but to show off a new skill?

In fact, the more times I read this over, the more I giggle at it. That’s really unusual!

MELINDA: You know, I think in some ways, the simpler the humor, the more durable it is. The less we have to think about it for it to be funny, the more it’s likely to trigger the reaction again on repeated viewings. Kiyohiko Azuma draws this kind of humor brilliantly, and by keeping the storytelling nearly as simple as Yotsuba’s own thought processes, he ensures its enduring success.

MICHELLE: I think you’re right about the correlation of simplicity and durability. After all, isn’t that also the general rule with fashion? Some classics just don’t go out of style! I’d actually call Azuma a master at this type of storytelling; it’s impressive how he is always able to make Yotsuba’s thought processes abundantly clear, without need of explanatory dialogue or narration.

Here’s another good example, this one from volume three. It’s not as giggle-inducing, but we can still tell that Yotsuba is shyly expecting something and is crestfallen when she doesn’t receive it. We don’t even need to know that she’s hoping for a souvenir.

MELINDA: Oh, that’s a great example! You’ve got me wanting to reread the series again now, just so I can experience all these fantastic moments all over again!

MICHELLE: Me too! It strikes me that another series I thought about sampling for this column, Neko Ramen (TOKYOPOP), also draws on simplicity and a sort of universal understanding of behavior (albeit feline) for its humor. There are a lot of panels that make me giggle just because they’re so absurd yet true, like one in which a cat is considered for the job of cashier until it reveals that it only wants to roll around on the register.

MELINDA: Adding that layer of absurdity is usually what makes humor work the best for me, actually, which is why it’s surprising just how deftly Azuma manages to hook me every time!

MICHELLE: Same here!

You know, I feel like we have come back around to the same conclusion we sort of reach every time: manga is awesome!

MELINDA: That it is. 🙂

Let’s Get Visual: Funny Pages

MICHELLE: The wait is over.. a new Let’s Get Visual is here! We examined intensely emotional moments in our last column, so this time we’re going in the opposite direction by highlighting pages that make us laugh.

I’ve got to say, finding a couple of pages that genuinely made me giggle was much harder than finding ones that made me sniffle. Did you have a similar experience?

MELINDA: Actually, no, I giggle pretty easily and at a wide variety of things. My real challenge was picking just one scene!

MICHELLE: I certainly smile at amusing things, but I guess my threshold for outright laughter is pretty high. I’d be a good contestant on Make Me Laugh!

Still, I was able to find a pair of pages that had just the right combination of silly, cute, and absurd to appeal to me. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Silver Diamond, Volume 1, Pages 106 and 110 (TOKYOPOP)

As the artist (Shiho Sugiura) herself points out, what we have here is essentially a cliché. The character from another world or another time comes to the present day and freaks out over things like television and cars. What makes this scene so great to me is the fact that the character doing the freaking out is Koh, an excitable talking snake (who, incidentally, is highly venomous).

Something about a slanty-eyed, fanged critter going, “Whoa, what’s that guy?!” makes me crack up every time. He thinks everything is a creature, including the stove, whom he unwisely challenges to a fight. In the second example, he’s about to attack the clock when he’s stopped by Chigusa, a human transplant from the other world, who is able to show wisdom only because he himself previously made the same mistakes.

It’s simple, to be sure, but it’s just so durn cute! When I first read it, it made me love and sympathize with Koh instantly.

MELINDA: I’m a fan of this series as well, and Koh is my favorite character, so I can definitely relate to your fondness for him here. I think part of what makes him work so well, is that Sugiura doesn’t try to give him human features (other than speech), so not only is it funny to see a snake making all these comments, it’s a little bit poignant too, the way Sugiura draws him, which makes the humor hit just that much harder. Super-cute animal designs are all well and good, but a more realistic character can be much more touching, just for being more real. And something you care about is a lot funnier than something you don’t, at least in my experience.

As I type this out, I realize that the humor I enjoy most always contains a bit of poignance as well. Is it just me?

MICHELLE: Oh, that’s a really good point! Perhaps it’s simultaneously funny and endearing because he continues to look like a snake throughout, and hasn’t been given any over-exaggerated, human-like expressions to convey his surprise. It makes it seem more like we really are seeing how a snake would genuinely try to process these things.

And no, it is certainly not just you. Plus, if you consider a person’s character when writing humor, that just gives you a whole other layer to play with. Some things are funny because of who said them, after all, and not merely what was said.

MELINDA: I think there’s really very little in our lives that we process with only one emotion, and humor and affection work really well together. Koh’s appearance as a regular snake helps make him look vulnerable simply by virtue of his size, despite the fact that he’s pretty fierce, which makes him even more endearing.

Sugiura also does a great job of creating a sort of whirlwind tour of the wondrous Earth “creatures” with a lot of slanted, non-standard panels, cramped pretty close together, which makes the whole thing read funnier.

MICHELLE: Indeed, I was remembering that How to Draw Shojo Manga advocated using diagonal panels to show that a character is off-balance in a particular situation, so it makes sense Sugiura would use them to convey the dizzying onslaught poor Koh is experiencing.

Shall we move on to your selection? It looks pretty poignant, too!

Yotsuba&!, Volume 6, Pages 78-79 (Yen Press)

MELINDA: It certainly is! So, I went very simple with this for a couple of reasons. First of all, the humor is entirely visual. In fact, it wouldn’t need to be in English for us to get the humor completely. I’d submit, too, that much of the humor, especially on the second page, relies on the story being displayed for us one panel at a time, so it could only exist in comics. The humor is in the still shots, snapped one-by-one, which slow the action to a crawl, without the tonal messiness of slow-motion.This effect can’t be achieved with the same kind of clarity in animation or live action.

Perhaps the bigger reason why I chose this, however, is that it relies on slapstick humor, which usually doesn’t work for me at all. I almost never laugh at scenes where the humor is based on someone slipping on a banana peel or a thousand other types of stumbles, pratfalls, and rake handles to the face that are essential to the genre. It leaves me completely cold. Yet here, as Yotsuba’s inattention to where she’s going sends her tumbling over a hill, I can’t help but laugh, both at her fall and at the older girls’ stunned reaction as they watch it happen. Somehow, that’s hilarious. And, just as with your selection, it’s hilarious because we care, or perhaps more to the point, the author cares. He loves Yotsuba as much as we do, so we’re all reacting together, unable to keep ourselves from laughing, but without any kind of cruel glee being taken in Yotsuba’s misfortune. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s significant.

MICHELLE: I react to slapstick the same way you do, but that tumble is so amusing, too, because Yotsuba was trying so hard. She really, really wanted the picture of her on the bike to be awesome, but because she was thinking more about that than actually riding, this happens.

It’s humor that relies entirely on human nature. The part the makes me laugh most is her wide-eyed, extreme close-up eagerness on that first page, because who hasn’t known a kid who was totally excited to not only be photographed but to show off a new skill?

In fact, the more times I read this over, the more I giggle at it. That’s really unusual!

MELINDA: You know, I think in some ways, the simpler the humor, the more durable it is. The less we have to think about it for it to be funny, the more it’s likely to trigger the reaction again on repeated viewings. Kiyohiko Azuma draws this kind of humor brilliantly, and by keeping the storytelling nearly as simple as Yotsuba’s own thought processes, he ensures its enduring success.

MICHELLE: I think you’re right about the correlation of simplicity and durability. After all, isn’t that also the general rule with fashion? Some classics just don’t go out of style! I’d actually call Azuma a master at this type of storytelling; it’s impressive how he is always able to make Yotsuba’s thought processes abundantly clear, without need of explanatory dialogue or narration.

Here’s another good example, this one from volume three. It’s not as giggle-inducing, but we can still tell that Yotsuba is shyly expecting something and is crestfallen when she doesn’t receive it. We don’t even need to know that she’s hoping for a souvenir.

MELINDA: Oh, that’s a great example! You’ve got me wanting to reread the series again now, just so I can experience all these fantastic moments all over again!

MICHELLE: Me too! It strikes me that another series I thought about sampling for this column, Neko Ramen (TOKYOPOP), also draws on simplicity and a sort of universal understanding of behavior (albeit feline) for its humor. There are a lot of panels that make me giggle just because they’re so absurd yet true, like one in which a cat is considered for the job of cashier until it reveals that it only wants to roll around on the register.

MELINDA: Adding that layer of absurdity is usually what makes humor work the best for me, actually, which is why it’s surprising just how deftly Azuma manages to hook me every time!

MICHELLE: Same here!

You know, I feel like we have come back around to the same conclusion we sort of reach every time: manga is awesome!

MELINDA: That it is. 🙂

Let’s Get Visual: The Verklempt-Makers

MICHELLE: It’s time for another installment of Let’s Get Visual, the monthly column in which Melinda Beasi and I attempt to better understand the visual aspects of manga!

This month we’re looking at scenes that have impacted us emotionally. Personally, I had always assumed that a sympathetic reaction to an emotional scene was due purely to my empathy for the characters and whatever they happen to be feeling. Having learned more about an artist’s bag of tricks, however, I began to wonder if the creators weren’t somehow influencing readers to respond in the desired way. To that end, Melinda and I have each picked a scene that made us verklempt and will attempt to look at them from a more critical perspective.

Melinda, why don’t you start us off this time?

MELINDA: Sure! Well, as you know, my original idea when we were talking about this column was to focus on romantic imagery, so I’m going to still go in that direction for my, uh, verkelmptedness.

NANA, Volume 6, Pages 123-125 (VIZ Media)

The scene I’ve chosen comes from volume six of Ai Yazawa’s NANA. Here, Nobu has finally gotten up the nerve to confess his feelings to Hachi, though she’s still involved with Takumi. What I think is especially brilliant on Yazawa’s part, is that she’s managed to create real romantic tension while keeping the characters physically apart, but without the kind of melodrama that might typically involve.

The symbolism seems obvious. The two are standing at the edge of the jetty (maybe less dramatic than a cliff, but similar in feel), separated from each other by the solid sections of the structure. So they’re both out on a limb (metaphorically) by just being there, though circumstances keep them from getting too close. Yazawa sets this tone immediately by establishing their position in the very first frame.

Recognizing the tension of the situation, Hachi tries to lighten the mood, but Nobu’s got a mission, so he gets right to the point. He doesn’t draw things out at all. There’s almost no anticipation, and the dialogue is fairly sparse. Still, with little more than a few camera angles and some subtle body language, Yazawa manages to create a deeply affecting scene, more romantic, even, than in the next volume when the two actually get together. It’s beautifully done and really shows off her powerful talent for romance.

MICHELLE: Oh, that’s such a good point regarding the jetty and their position on it! I totally did not notice that when I read this volume. What strikes me is how different the darkness in this scene feels from the oppressive use of screentone we saw last month in your pick from Tokyo Babylon. For me, the darkness here reinforces the feeling that, for this moment, these two might as well be the only people in the world. I swear, too, that I can almost feel a night breeze when I look at that first page. Perhaps it’s the wide angle used, which emphasizes openness and yet utter solitude.

MELINDA: The night breeze is absolutely there! The flutter of Hachi’s skirt, the still-visible clouds creating a coolness in the air… it’s all there! The wide shot at the end reinforces this too.

And while one might think that it’s the dialogue that makes it romantic (Nobu does say “I’m in love with you.” right at the end, of course), I think the real testament to Yazawa’s skill here is that, even if you take all the dialogue away, the scene reads the same. Take a look:

MICHELLE: It does! I bet if you tasked someone with filling in the dialogue with no knowledge of the series, they would still get the basic gist right, even if they missed some of the specifics of Hachi’s attempt to lighten the mood. Her mute, blushing shake of the head stands out more this way, as well.

MELINDA: This is what makes great comics, in my opinion. Obviously dialogue is important, but Yazawa really lets the artwork tell the story here, and it’s so powerful. This is probably one of my favorite scenes in the whole series.

So what verklemptotomy have you got up your sleeve?

MICHELLE: Well, you’ve probably heard people say, in regards to One Piece, something like, “Wait until you get to volume nine! That’s when it really gets good!” Heck, I have said this, because I think that it is true. For today I’ve chosen the scene that, for me, is the emotional crux of this pivotal volume.

One Piece, Volume 9, Pages 199-200 and 202 (VIZ Media)

At this point in the story, independent and avaricious Nami has been keeping secrets from the other members of the Straw Hat pirates. She is in over her head, trying to deal with an enormous problem on her own, and even though Luffy doesn’t know the specifics of what’s going on, he still wants to help. Here, we finally see Nami break down and finally ask for his assistance, and I swear that this scene gives me goosebumps. I love stories about someone finding the place where they belong, and that’s really what this scene is all about. We’ll see this again when another solitary, wounded woman joins the crew—it takes time to let down one’s guard and accept Luffy’s offer of unquestioning acceptance, and the notion that the crew really becomes a family is an important theme for the series.

Artistically, Oda depicts Nami’s state by putting her in a pose in which she appears almost literally weighed down by her burdens, and also by drawing her very small. It’s a wide angle, and she’s trying to hide her despair, but on the second page she finally allows herself to be open with Luffy and communicate how much she needs him, which is where we finally see the true extent of how upset she is. Of course, Luffy agrees instantly, and the loan of his treasured hat silently communicates many things, like, “You are trusted,” “You are valuable,” and, perhaps most important when up against a powerful foe, “Don’t worry; I’ll come back.”

The final image is one of my favorite pages in the entirety of One Piece. There we find that the other members of the crew have just been waiting for word from Nami. They are all there, ready and willing to come to her aid, and the change in Luffy’s expression in that final panel just says it all: “Nobody messes with a member of my crew.”

MELINDA: I agree, it’s that final bit, the strong demonstration of the support Nami’s got behind her that really punctuates the scene. I think what really strikes me, too, as someone who hasn’t yet read past the first few volumes of the series, is how powerfully Oda uses what is really a very cartoonish art style to create this emotional impact. Luffy’s so goofy, even down to his rubber-man powers, yet there’s nothing goofy at all going on here. Even his “shwing”-y little jump feels weighty in this scene.

MICHELLE: I must admit that I did not scan page 201 because it’s a full-page illustration of Luffy bellowing “Okay!!!!!” in a rather unattractive manner, but otherwise, you’re quite right. Oda’s style takes some getting used to at first, but long acquaintance with the series will reveal that he has crafted a story far more in touch with its emotions than most shounen fare.

And, you know, I suspect this scene would work equally well with all the dialogue stripped away.

MELINDA: I expect you’re right!

MICHELLE: So, in the end, I think it’s fair to say that artists are emphasizing certain elements of emotional scenes to influence a reader’s response, but it doesn’t come across as outright manipulation. That’s probably not even possible. I know we’ve both read series in which the artist tried very hard to wring pathos from flat and lifeless characters to no avail.

MELINDA: Yes, that’s really a great summary of what we’ve seen here, Michelle. Both Oda and Yazawa display their real skill through their subtlety, even though most might not characterize either of these series as “subtle.” They use their artwork to do most of the heavy lifting, so that they don’t have to tell us everything through dialogue, which would be much more obvious and much less effective. That’s their real craft.

MICHELLE: I concur. I raise my Coke in salute to them both. Well done.

Let’s Get Visual: Of Sakura and the Sea

MICHELLE: Welcome to the November edition of Let’s Get Visual, a monthly column in which Manga Bookshelf’s Melinda Beasi and I attempt to improve our understanding of manga art!

We don’t have any particular theme this month, but that hasn’t stopped us from assembling some interesting pages to talk about! Melinda has chosen a two-page spread from the fourth volume of Children of the Sea, which is due out from VIZ next month. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Children of the Sea, Volume 4, Pages 328-329 (VIZ Media)

What is it you find noteworthy about these pages, Melinda?

MELINDA: Well, there isn’t a *lot* I want to talk about here. Mostly I want to discuss panel size and how it affects the reader’s experience and understanding of this scene.

Certainly it goes without saying that a mangaka may use a full-page panel to give weight to a specific scene or piece of dialogue, but what I hadn’t considered before analyzing these pages is how much the panels leading up to a full-page panel can be used to influence the way a reader feels when he/she gets there.

In the first page I’ve provided here, mangaka Daisuke Igarashi chops everything into pieces. Our view of the characters who are speaking to each other in the scene is limited to a single eye; half of a face; legs; a brief, narrow profile; and finally a view from a doorway that shows us their entire bodies, but with a maddening lack of clarity. No matter where we look on that page, we are prevented from getting a clear view of either of them. Our efforts are obstructed at every panel, creating a sense of frustration that I, at least, felt keenly while reading that page.

As a result, when I finally reached the full panel page that came next, my first reaction was a sense of relief. This feeling eclipsed everything else, including my understanding of what was actually being said. And honestly, it affected my feelings about what was being said, which is significant particularly since the character doing the talking is generally unreliable. My strong sense of relief actually gave him more credibility than he would have had with me otherwise. I believed him, because he was the one who eased my frustration. That’s some pretty powerful storytelling.

MICHELLE: What surprises me in what you said is “either of them.” From the way the panels are constructed, to someone who has never read the series before it seemed like several people were actually present. Even so, I too experienced a profound sense of relief at escaping the claustrophobic first page into the open space of the second. That’s pretty appropriate for a scene talking about birth!

MELINDA: Well, and I did misspeak on one point, which is that actually only one of them is speaking. The other is being led along in confusion and frustration, just like the reader, right up until the moment that the full-page panel appears.

Iarashi’s artwork is stunning to look at throughout this series, but this was the first time I really paid attention to the way it was structured and how that alone might affect me as a reader.

MICHELLE: Yeah, I think this is a very clear example of how panel size makes a difference. Good choice!

MELINDA: So what have you got to share with us today?

MICHELLE: My selections come from the omnibus collecting volumes four and five of the josei series, Suppli, and are actually not consecutive pages. A little background information is required.

Suppli, Volume 4, Pages 151, 162, and 164-165 (TOKYOPOP)

Single again after her boyfriend, Ogiwara, takes a job in America, Minami Fujii is nursing a growing attraction for a pervy photographer named Sahara. When they’re on a group trip scouting locations for a commercial shoot, with sakura blooming all around and memories of Ogiwara intruding, Sahara catches Fujii when she stumbles. Though she knows he’s bad news, the shock of contact prompts the realization, “I don’t want to be careful.”

A few pages later, she ends up hurting her ankle and Sahara misses an important meeting to take her to the hospital. As he ruffles her hair and tells her not to worry about it, wispy trails of sakura begin to appear. It’s like a sort of visual shorthand mangaka Mari Okazaki is using to reveal Fujii’s emotional state. The sakura has come to represent her attraction for this man—a kind of mental static obliterating the reasons why she shouldn’t want him.

The feeling only grows when Sahara touches her leg to replace the bandages, and when Fujii realizes he must have carried her into her apartment, the sakura runs amok across the bottom half of the page, symbolizing how she’s being swept away into a possibly doomed relationship by feelings and associations that she can’t control. It’s quite effective!

MELINDA: As someone who hasn’t read these volumes of the series yet, I was particularly struck by the way everything you’re talking about is brought together in a single box of narration. “The memory of contact.” Perhaps I’m way off base, but I feel like that’s a verbalization of exactly what you’re talking about. It begins with the “shock of contact” as you mention, and is carried through by repeated physical contact—even just the ruffling of hair. And you’re right, it’s very effective! You can follow the thread of contact through the sakura blossoms.

MICHELLE: Okazaki has used symbolism in Suppli before, but this one is more subtle than most. When I read page 162 for the first time, I thought, “What are those frazzly little thingies?” It wasn’t until I got to pages 164-165 that I realized they were significant, and then had to flip back and find the point of the story with which they correlated. Then I went, “Ohhhhh!”

MELINDA: It’s one of those things that would just move along quietly in your subconscious if you weren’t actively thinking about it.

MICHELLE: Probably so, yes! Both of our examples today highlight the care and consideration mangaka put into their work—especially, it seems, those writing for older readers. In addition to being able to draw beautifully, they can also wring sympathy and (perhaps unfounded) allegiance out of readers by the simple way they structure their stories.

That’s it for this installment of Let’s Get Visual! Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your feedback and personal interpretations of these selections!

Let’s Get Visual: Speechless

MICHELLE: Welcome to the third installment of Let’s Get Visual, a monthly column with Manga Bookshelf‘s Melinda Beasi in which we flex our artistic muscles!

Although it’s not our intent to have specific themes for each column, we do like responding to requests! Last month, as suggested by a reader, we devoted our column to action scenes. This month, inspired by a comment from Livejournal user Salimbol, we’ve picked scenes that excel in nonverbal communication. I will say right up front that my choice is very, very simple, but it was a scene that left a lasting impression nonetheless. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You, Volume 3, Pages 81-82 (VIZ Media)

MELINDA: So, what do you particularly like about these pages?

MICHELLE: Maybe it’s the simplicity I like best, actually. I don’t even need to give any context about the manga for anyone to be able to tell the following:

1. Boy sees Girl #1.
2. Girl #1 is oblivious.
3. Boy watches her with a look of warm affection.
4. Girl #2 watches Boy watching Girl #1 and does not like what she sees.

It’s so simple, I wonder if its meant to emphasize the purity and clarity of the feelings the characters share and from which this would-be rival is destined to be forever excluded.

MELINDA: Well, I think it’s an important moment for Girl #2. She’s watching a boy she likes watch another girl with such unguarded affection. He’s doesn’t even seem to realize or care that she’s still there watching him, he’s so wrapped up in the pure joy of watching the other girl. It’s significant, I think, that the final panels turn the focus back on Girl #2 and what she’s feeling, because this scene really is a revelation for her. I’d almost feel sorry for her if I hadn’t read the book. 😀

MICHELLE: Yeah, me too! I love, also, that the boy radiates almost a sense of peace as he looks upon Girl #1. Even watching her do little things like water plants or practice her kicking skills on a rock brings him joy. It’s scenes like these that make Kimi ni Todoke such a warm and cozy read, I think.

MELINDA: You’re absolutely right. Also, the artist is so skillful here, I think she could have even left out the final, dreamy image of Girl #1 in the boy’s mind’s eye, and we still would have seen it in our own heads, it’s so clear what he’s thinking of. It’s easy to dismiss the craft in a comic that’s primarily known for being warm and sweet, but that would be such a mistake here. This whole sequence is just really well done.

MICHELLE: And the memory of it stayed with me. It’s been five months since I read this volume, but it was the first thing I thought of when the topic of nonverbal communication was suggested.

The second thing I thought of is what you ended up choosing, interestingly enough!

MELINDA: Shall I introduce that, then?

MICHELLE: Go for it!

Antique Bakery, Volume 4, Pages 116-120 (Digital Manga Publishing)

MELINDA: Okay, well, the scene is from Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery. One of the traits I associate most with her as an artist is her use of silent panels, and this is the one that first came to my mind when you mentioned Salimbol’s request. It’s a scene between the story’s two main characters that is revisited multiple times throughout the manga. It’s really the beginning of their history together, despite the fact that it’s quite far in the past from when the main action of the story is set. This is one of its final appearances in the series, late in the fourth volume.

To help illustrate how effective I think the visual storytelling is in this scene, I’ve actually provided scans from the Japanese version of the series. Even without being able to read the small amount of dialogue here, and despite how important the first bit of dialogue is to the history of these characters, I think the emotional trajectory of the scene is crystal clear.

Boy #1 says something emphatic to Boy #2. Boy #2 is visibly upset, and though he attempts to maintain his composure, he eventually breaks down and flees the scene. Boy #1 ponders what he’s done, finally succumbing to deep regret .

What Yoshinaga captures so well is subtlety of emotion and the agony of time. The progression of the characters’ expressions during this sequence are almost painfully slow, placing the reader in the same sort of stopped-time state each of the boys is experiencing—that sense of being frozen in one time and place that only happens in moments of deeply negative emotion. Nobody gets off easy, especially Boy #1, who is stuck living with the consequences of his actions long after Boy #2 has escaped from the moment. The art is so simple, but the effect is chilling.

MICHELLE: I positively adore the phrase “the agony of time.” Yoshinaga uses repeated sequences of panels quite a lot, and while this one is painful, I can recall others that cycle through surprise, thoughtfulness, and then smiling acceptance. It’s a technique that’s very versatile!

Here, I find myself struck by the third and fourth pages particularly, particularly as regards where Boy #1 is placed on the page. The third page emphasizes how very alone he now is, after driving off his companion, and the fourth places him very low on the page. I wonder if this last reflects his opinion of himself, after he has treated his classmate so shabbily.

MELINDA: I wondered that as well! And yes, the empty space that’s left in the wake of Boy #2’s departure is significant in terms of how we experience the scene and the state of mind Boy #1 has been left in. Though our sympathy, of course, goes out naturally to Boy #2, it’s hard not to be moved by Boy #1’s obvious regret. As a reader, I want to somehow reach into the page and compel him to go after Boy #2, which adds a bit of frustration to the mix as well.

MICHELLE: Yes, this definitely emphasizes how stuck he is, both physically and mentally. And will continue to be, even after he moves from this spot, as the story makes clear that Boy #2 has moved on from this moment but Boy #1 has never been able to quite forgive himself for it.

MELINDA: It’s really quite brilliant, the way she tells the stories of these two men, isn’t it?

MICHELLE: It really is. I suspect “Yoshinaga” is actually just a synonym for “brilliant.”

MELINDA: I really don’t know what to say after that. 🙂

MICHELLE: Maybe we should take our cue from these artists and know when to remain silent!

That’s it for this month’s Let’s Get Visual. Thank you for joining us and, as always, please feel free to share your personal opinions on these pages in the comments!

Let’s Get Visual: Annnnnd Action!

MICHELLE: Welcome to the second installment of Let’s Get Visual, the monthly column in which Melinda Beasi (of Manga Bookshelf) and I attempt to improve our admittedly lacking skills in visual analysis!

In the comments section of last month’s post, it was suggested that we choose selections that would allow us to “examine movement and panel-to-panel storytelling.” This notion intrigued us, so Melinda and I have done our best to fulfill this request, though I must admit that mine doesn’t exactly meet the qualifications of an “action-heavy scene.”

MELINDA: I admit I found the request a little daunting. Though I read a lot of manga that contain action sequences, I tend to kind of zone out during many of those moments, particularly if I find the action difficult to follow. Then I realized, of course, that this offered a great opportunity to think about instances in which action scenes really work for me and why.

MICHELLE: When we first received this request, I thought I might end up choosing a fight sequence from One Piece, but in the end, I found a low-key scene that nonetheless inspired awe. But enough of me, why don’t you start us off this time? And remember, folks—all images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Banana Fish, Volume 8, Pages 130-135 (VIZ Media)

MELINDA: Since we just finished the latest installment of our roundtable discussion, Breaking Down Banana Fish, I had Akimi Yoshida’s Banana Fish on the brain, so the pages I’ve chosen are from that series, late in volume eight. The story’s protagonist, gang leader Ash Lynx, is engaged in a showdown with his enemy, Frederick Arthur. The fight was supposed to be one-on-one, knife only, with a neutral witness in a closed subway station, but Arthur has used his mob ties to pull off an ambush with a subway train full of his gun-toting boys. Once Arthur breaks the rules, though, the fight’s original witnesses (there end up being two) call out their own boys to back up Ash, so Arthur’s gang attempts to retreat on the same train they arrived in. That’s where these panels begin.

What really strikes me here is Yoshida’s use of sound effects throughout these panels. I’m the kind of reader who generally ignores sound effects, but here they are vital to the tone of the scene. In this empty, echoing subway station filled with a lot of really tense guys, it’s the sounds that drive their responses more than anything. Sing’s gang bursting out of their hiding places, Ash’s gun releasing its empty shells onto the cement floor, bullets reloading, the echoing gunfire, and then the labored clacks of the subway train pulling away, leaving Cain and Sing behind in the emptiness of the station—these sounds dominate each page and move the action forward. Whoever’s decision it was to translate these sound effects into English really made the right call, in my view, because this entire sequence would die without the full comprehension of the sounds.

I particularly like the second-to-last page, in which both Ash and Arthur stand separately, with only the heavy clack of the train and the sounds of their own, tense, breathing in their heads. That panel makes the silence surrounding Cain and Sing on the last page feel even more intense.

MICHELLE: I think you may be on to something there. Now that I’ve reread it and paid special attention to the sound effects (which, by the way, I always read, even if they’re in katakana!) I can completely see how the loudness of the train followed by the absence of sound emphasizes the emptiness of the station as well as Ash’s shocking departure.

When I first read this scene, the part that struck me the most was the top right of the second two-page spread, where Ash eyes the door, we see a foot, and then he comes sailing through it. I love how this was conveyed so economically, and in a way that allows us to fill in all the steps in between.

MELINDA: I’m really glad you brought that up, because I think economy is really the key in drawing clear action sequences. Some of the backgrounds here are pretty cluttered, due to the heavy graffiti on & in the subway cars, so it’s the clear, simple action shots that help keep our focus. There are a lot of speed lines here, but they are thin and subtle, drawing our eyes in the right direction without making us aware of them. And her choice of details is spot on.

For instance, when Ash is ripping tape off of his leg to get at the extra bullets he carries, Yoshida focuses on Ash’s pained face as the tape comes off, rather than the action itself, with the sound effect cluing us in. Then she follows it up with a close-up on the bullets going into the gun. She goes from precise actions like these into increasingly broader frames, until the bottom of the page where we finally see Ash opened up against Arthur’s gang. It’s so effective, the way she takes us from the tense intimacy of Ash’s personal space into the vulnerability of the wide-open platform, so that we experience the progression just as he does.

MICHELLE: That’s an excellent description of what’s going on. Interestingly, the consideration of perspective—where our characters are in relation to the world they inhabit—figures large in my example, as well.

MELINDA: Let’s talk about that then, shall we?

BLAME!, Volume 6, Chapter 36, Pages 152-155 (TOKYOPOP)

MICHELLE: Alrighty. I’ve selected four pages from Tsutomu Nihei’s BLAME!, not for the action—which essentially consists of two people walking around—but for the elegant panel-to-panel storytelling.

BLAME! is a rarity for me in that it’s a series that interested me because of its art rather than it’s story. BLAME! stars Killy, an emotionless young man equipped with a powerful gun, and depicts his journey through a labyrinthine structure of concrete and steel as he searches for humans containing “net terminal genes,” which will allow a person to interface with the netsphere that originally created the sprawling place. The reviews I read praised Nihei’s architectural sensibilities, which was enough to sway me to check out the series. Along the way, Killy acquires a companion in Cibo, whose origins are too complicated to go into, and they begin to journey together. In this sequence they’re ascending to another level of the massive structure, hoping to find a lab where they can read a genetic sample they’ve acquired.

We first see them climbing up a long, spindly column as they approach a circular opening in the roof above them. From the swirling mists and lack of a floor below them, we get the sense that they’ve already been climbing for a long time. In the next set of pages, Killy and Cibo are suddenly walking up a staircase, but the perspective of the scene—showing the circular opening and the column descending out of sight—make absolutely clear how their new position relates to their old one.

On page 155, Killy and Cibo approach a door. This door has four pipes coming out from it, three going up and one to the side. At the bottom of the page, Killy and Cibo are now silhouetted against an opening, and even though we’re looking at them from the other direction now, there are those pipes again, showing us clearly that they’ve now stepped inside.

BLAME! is full of scenes like this. I think it’s another example of the economy we were praising in Akimi Yoshida’s art—readers are given a recognizable landmark or two and that’s all they really need to understand the characters’ movements. It produces a sense of motion while at the same time making this fantastic place seem somehow more real.

MELINDA: I really love how these panels provide such a sense of scope, and how small and vulnerable the characters are in their environment. You’re absolutely right that it makes the place feel more real.

MICHELLE: This is a zoomed-in moment of their journey, too. When they’re covering a lot of ground, scenery passes more quickly, as if it’s being fast-forwarded. Not that it’s any less detailed or gorgeous, for all that.

MELINDA: Also, I think the final panel here is effective, too, as small as it is. The pause in the open doorway has an anticipatory feel. I want to know what the character is seeing in front of him.

MICHELLE: Exactly. BLAME! really is a page-turner, and even with its tendency to sometimes not make very much sense, it’s still a quick and enjoyable read. Incidentally, Tsutomu Nihei is also the man behind Biomega, a series currently being released under the VIZ Signature imprint. If anyone’s curious to check out his work, that might be an easier option, since most of BLAME! is now out-of-print.

MELINDA: I think I’ll check that out myself!

MICHELLE: Well, that’s it for this month’s Let’s Get Visual. We look forward to your feedback and hope you’ll join us again next time!