Yumi Tamura: Two Artbooks

For this month’s MMF, I wanted to review something a little different—two new artbooks by Yumi Tamura. While they’re not available in English, they are fairly easy to find, and Tamura’s beautiful art doesn’t need to be read to be enjoyed.

Edge of Emotions front cover

Edge of Emotions front cover

Natsu, a high school girl who is so shy that her only friend is her cat, sits down to a meal with her family and, oddly enough, it’s every one of her favorite foods. When she wakes up, she’s on a small boat, in the middle of the sea with six other teenagers and an adult. The adult later reveals to the group that they weren’t kidnapped or the victims of some accident—they are some of the few survivors from a catastrophe that has devastated the world and Japan. The leaders of Japan, knowing this was coming, devised a project where five groups of specially chosen young people would be cryogenically frozen, only to awake when the world was stable enough again for human life. 7SEEDS is the story of Natsu and Team Summer B, but also the others that have awoken in a terrible world. There are also glimpses of humanity’s last days in a survival shelter, and the brutal, stark story of how Team Summer A came to be. While there’s only a handful of people left, the story still has an epic scope as they try to build their lives among the ruins.

7SEEDS is one of the best series being published in Japan right now, running in Shogakukan’s FLOWERS magazine, which runs other older-skewing shojo series like Kaze Hikaru. While it would fit in with current trends in YA publishing (dystopias ahoy!), the fact that it is currently in volume 24 goes against the current realities of the manga market.

Edge of Emotions dustjacket reverse - there are more people on the flaps!

Edge of Emotions dustjacket reverse – there are more people on the flaps!

This is a problem for the manga reader who doesn’t read Japanese. 7SEEDS had ten volumes published in France, which is somewhat readable if you still have a decent memory of high school French. Sadly, though, for unknown reasons the publisher no longer has the license (cancellations are rare in the French market) and the volumes are out of print, which makes them difficult and expensive to import.

One way to enjoy titles that you can’t read is to enjoy the art. Artbooks have long been available in the US market through various importers, and the books for the bigger titles can be had (for an inflated price, of course) at your favorite local anime convention. So, having a bit of an artbook addiction, when I saw two new releases from Yumi Tamura, one for 7SEEDS and the other focusing on her whole body of work, I had to have them!

Edge of Emotions - Natsu and Hana

Edge of Emotions – Natsu and Hana

7SEEDS: Edge of Emotions was released in 2012 and is more of a guide/character book than a straight-up artbook, so there is a significant amount of text. However, this is a very attractive presentation—the back of the dustjacket is a poster with many of the main characters, and the book opens with a poster in the front—one side is Natsu, the other side is a rundown of all of the “seeds” and their adult guides, included the deceased ones. Then there’s multiple pages of beautiful color artwork from the series—mostly from cover/splash pages—and also from furoku items. The paper is good quality but not glossy, like you’d see in regular artbooks.

Edge of Emotions - Aramaki <3

Edge of Emotions – Aramaki <3

Being a character guide, the focus is on providing profiles of the 35 “seeds” and the guides, along with the handful of other pre-disaster characters. For a handful of characters who didn’t make it long, there’s more about them here than was ever in the series itself. There is also an extensive interview with Tamura-sensei at the end. One of the most interesting parts is an extra manga at the end, which is a short story of how many of the characters’ paths were crossing before the disaster, but they didn’t even know it.

Edge of Emotions - Profile page for Hana

Edge of Emotions – Profile page for Hana

The other book is one of a series of special releases for Shogakukan’s 90th anniversary, titled Flowers Comics Masterpieces, featuring “five comics legends”: Taeko Watanabe (Kaze Hikaru), Chie Shinoara (Red River), Moto Hagio (Heart of Thomas, They Were 11), Akimi Yoshida (Banana Fish) and Yumi Tamura.

Heat of Life - slipcase box and book presentation

Heat of Life – slipcase box and book presentation

生命の熱量 , or roughly, Heat of Life, is firstly a beautiful presentation. The hardcover and bonus book (more on that later!) are in a very nice, heavy-duty carboard slipcase. The slipcase is embossed with gold foil and it’s really well made. The hardcover book runs over 400 pages, consisting primarily of one-shots. Perhaps some of these are the titles she kept mentioning in her Basara notes! Most stories open with a color page as well. There’s also a selection of colored work from titles that -aren’t- 7SEEDS or Basara—but there is stuff that a Western fan would recognize, like Chicago. It’s all on high-quality paper so the illustrations are reproduced beautifully.

Heat of Life - poster from the reverse side of the Basara/7SEEDS book dustjacket

Heat of Life – poster from the reverse side of the Basara/7SEEDS book dustjacket

What will be of most interest to fans would be the second book—a smaller, thin paperback. It has the same nice paper, and the dustjacket reverses and folds out into a Basara poster. Not having those artbooks I can’t immediately tell if it is new art or not. Half of the book is about Basara, and it’s basically an illustrated summary of the story. The second half is for 7SEEDS, and provides some information on post-disaster Japan, since a lot of the character information was already covered in Edge of Emotion. Both halves have fantastic artwork, and there is some overlap on the 7SEEDS artwork.

Heat of Life - Beautiful art from the Basara book

Heat of Life – Beautiful art from the Basara book

If you have to get just one, Heat of Life is a much more comprehensive take on Tamura’s 30-year career, but it is a special edition, and priced like one. Edge of Emotions is a third of the price but entirely focused on 7SEEDS. Although, if you want to know more about it while you pen letters/prepare bribes for the folks at VIZ, it’s a great resource. Either way, you’re supporting Yumi Tamura!

Heat of Life - Interior art from the main book for one of the one-shot stories

Heat of Life – Interior art from the main book for one of the one-shot stories

So now that I have you wanting these, yes? 🙂 Here are my sources:

-Kinokuniya online, or, if you’re lucky and live near one, at one of their stores. To order online, it’s best to use ISBNs unless you can input Japanese text. Reasonable shipping costs.

-YesAsia online – again, having the ISBNs is a plus. They convert the titles into English text but the romanization leaves a lot to be desired. On YesAsia, also always be careful that you’re buying the Japanese editions—they also sell Chinese-language editions as well. They offer free shipping if you order over a certain amount but it’s rather slow.

Heat of Life - Interior art from Chicago

Heat of Life – Interior art from Chicago

-Amazon Japan – the biggest and best source, but you’ll be paying for overseas shipping. Still, investigate and compare—YesAsia and Kinokuniya’s pricing may still reflect when the dollar was stronger against the yen, so even with shipping it may not be a terrible deal since through Amazon you will get current rates. Amazon will also convert your payment themselves, so you don’t get hit with a foreign currency charge if you pay by credit card.

-eBay – There’s usually a significant markup by the majority of the “anime” sellers, so I prefer to use eBay for out-of-print titles that I can’t find elsewhere; Amazon Japan does have a marketplace comparable to the US site but few if any sellers will ship internationally. You can get lucky, sometimes, when someone is downsizing a collection and find a fair deal.

Heat of Life - Last page!  A little Tam-Tam Time and a little Shinbashi

Heat of Life – Last page! A little Tam-Tam Time and a little Shinbashi

7SEEDS: Edge of Emotions (7SEEDS 公式ファンブック) ISBN 978-4091342577, 980 JPY

Yumi Tamura: Heat of Life (田村由美-生命の熱量) ISBN 978-4091791436 2,730 JPY

The CMX Project: Cipher

cipher1MICHELLE: Hello, and thanks for joining us for the second installment of The CMX Project, in which we turn our attention to Cipher! (Please kindly overlook the fact that this column was promised for February; life has a nasty habit of upending one’s plans.) This month we’ll also have a special guest, but before the big reveal, how about another of your fabulous summaries, Karen? (Since you did so well with
Land of the Blindfolded!
)

KAREN: Goodness, Michelle, all that praise is going to go to my head!

This month we have Cipher, by Minako Narita. Published by Hakusensha, it ran in Lala and Lala DX in the early/mid-’80s. Narita began working in the ’70s, with an eight-volume series (Alien Street) coming before Cipher. She would later go on to do a sequel to Cipher, Alexandrite, and her current work is Hana Yori Mo Hana No Gotoku, coming out very slowly in the bimonthly magazine Melody.

Cipher is the story of Anise, a girl in high school in New York City in the 1980s, and how she pursues a friendship with former child star Siva, breaking through his cool detachment with the force of her personality. Through Siva, she meets his twin brother Cipher, and discovers a mystery surrounding the brothers—that they’ve been changing places with each other for years. Which one is which? And why do they do this? I feel as if I’m not crafting a summary that does the story justice; instead, I hope our conversation will unfold just like the story—there’s a lot of layers to peel back, but I found the effort to do so very worth it.

But before I start going on and on, Michelle, please tell us about our special guest this month!

resized1MICHELLE: Well, I have the good fortune to be Facebook friends with none other than Asako Suzuki, who was director of manga at CMX from 2006 until its untimely death! I shared our Land of the Blindfolded column with her, and when she mentioned that her favorite CMX series was Cipher, I invited her to join us!

Welcome, Asako!

ASAKO: Hi Michelle and Karen! Thank you for having me, and thank you VERY much for this wonderful project remembering CMX! I am honored and excited to be with you today to talk about my favorite manga series, Cipher!

Cipher is a very special manga series to me, and I have lost count of how many times I read it. In fact, I have just read the entire series (of course in Japanese) not long ago.

MICHELLE: Can you tell us how Cipher came to be licensed and published by CMX?

ASAKO: Actually, I inherited Cipher with some other early acquisitions when I joined CMX. That being said, before I joined CMX, I assisted the acquisition team and made some suggestions. Cipher (and [a] few other titles that were eventually published) was one of the titles I recommended, but I didn’t know if DC Comics had acquired it or not until I started my position. When I saw it on our production schedule, I was very happy!

KAREN: Wow, Asako, that must have been a great surprise to come into CMX and see Cipher there!

resized3Now that I’m past the awesome summary-writing part, I can give my opinion—that I loved this title. I went in with preconceived notions—that this was That ’80s Manga. And while yes, it is very much set in the ’80s, it’s not done with artifice. It’s clear that Narita adored American pop culture—she even mentions doing a Thompson Twins doujinshi!—and it’s all done so lovingly. Real teens are a part of the music, movies, and current events, and it’s only in hindsight that the ’80s seem so cheesy. She also doesn’t gloss over some of the gritter aspects of the times—New York was still recovering from a terrible ’70s. Ironically, Cipher and Siva’s apartment is now in a very trendy area!

What surprised me was how the story was very much a coming of age tale—and not just for the heroine, Anise, but for the boys as well. At times, especially in the second half, she’s much more in the background, but her role seemed to be as much as a catalyst to make the bigger, darker story of the twins happen. Anise is still very childish at 16—there’s the very funny part where it’s pointed out that she really, really needs to start wearing a bra—despite her maturity and insight in some areas, she’s having a hard time seeing herself as growing up.

And then we have our former-child-star twins, Siva and Cipher (whose real names are Jake and Roy, respectively). Michelle and Asako, what’s your take on them? And do you still love the ’80s?

MICHELLE: Similar to Land of the Blindfolded, this is another case where focus drifts from the heroine and onto the two boys in her life, who each have past trauma to deal with. Anise isn’t as perpetually sunny as Kanade, but she’s still much less interesting than the twins. Or, rather, I felt like Narita-sensei was less interested in exploring her as a character. It was especially odd to me that we never learn what her focus is at the performing arts school! She narrates in volume one that “lots of people come to this school hoping to become painters, dancers, musicians, or actors.” So, which is Anise? What is her ambition for being there? As someone who actually attended a performing arts school, your “major” was vitally important.

So, that said, I feel a little grumpy that the boys got so much more love, but can’t deny that they’re pretty fascinating. I especially like when the story begins to focus more on Siva and we see events from his perspective that we later see again from Cipher’s perspective. Siva felt that Cipher’s openness made him more easy for his parents to love, while Cipher felt that Jake’s reliability made his own behavior seem childish in comparison. I also really liked how the friends they make while they’re apart affect them.

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ASAKO: I am a huge fan of Anise; she was my hero! The reason why I wanted to come to the United States was because I wanted to be like, and live like her. To me, Anise was more realistic and easy to relate to compared to other manga protagonists, thanks to Narita-sensei’s amazing psychological descriptions throughout the series.

Narita-sensei is an amazing writer; I can easily tell how much she loved her characters, and she treated each differently. The way she shifted focus from one character to another was just incredible. I actually had a deep conversation with one of the manga editors in Japan (can’t say who!) about Cipher and how talented Narita-sensei is!

See, Narita-sensei introduced Cipher and Siva to us through the eyes of Anise and once we got to know the twins better with Anise, we were able to learn more about them individually through the twins’ perspectives. If Anise stayed as the center of the story the whole time, the story would have been shallow. With appearance of Dana, the focus was subtly shifted to Jake, and we got to know the secret of the twins and why Jake was protective yet envious of Roy. Then we learn more about Roy in LA… I really enjoyed the multi-dimensional story telling.

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Speaking of details, have you noticed of the characters’ mix-and-match wardrobes? That’s amazing!

Also, there is something I have always wanted to know and never understood… can I ask you both a question? When you say “manga from the ’80s,” what does that mean? How do you distinguish the manga from the ’80s from the recent ones and why would you get less excited about manga from the era? That always puzzled me…

KAREN: Michelle—I wondered that too! I was really hoping she would have some great talent that drove her to commute all the way in from Queens!

I missed Anise during the second half of the series when the twins separated. She was still there, but the second half was really about the twins apart, and each making friends on their own, without having the other to hide behind. I don’t understand why some places categorize this as a shounen-ai title, the only love is friendship and the twin’s kissy-kissy… is anything but that.

There’s a lot of subtle tonal shifts in the story—the Dana storyline being one of them—a beautiful, talented young girl on the verge of falling in love and being loved is tragically, suddenly killed, and it has a way of breaking apart the entire premise of the story. The twins don’t just grow apart, they fly apart—Roy quite literally to the West Coast, leaving Anise behind. The ruse of one twin playing another will never work again, so they had to be apart, and make friends on their own terms, and the switching between coasts feels like two different stories but… they mirror each other, like Cipher and Siva did. Alexandra and Hal are different people, but they carry their own insecurities and pasts into their friendships—friendships they needed as badly as Jake and Roy did.

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I didn’t notice the wardrobes, except that I loved how detailed they were. Narita-sensei must have been importing magazines! It stuns me about the accuracy of the details—reading this series sent me into a flurry of research (yes, with the extensive use of Google Maps) and it’s amazing that she did this in the pre-internet era—unless she was here herself? Asako, do you know any of that background? She did three series set in the US so it really seems she had a feel for the place.

To answer your question, Asako, and “’80s manga” generally means the style of art that I think is viewed as rather old-fashioned—not as extreme as ’70s manga, but it still looks “dated.” However, Narita-sensei’s art doesn’t suffer as much in comparison, and I think the rep that this title has for being an ’80s manga has is because it’s set in the 1980s, and references to George Michael and Hall and Oates are funny to a modern reader who looks at it all through a lens of nostalgia. I personally adore older manga, and wish there was more of it, but sadly publishers have said it doesn’t sell—that’s one thing I loved about CMX was that they brought out Swan and Cipher.

Speaking of art, I found it very well done, and I really want to hunt down one of those out-of-print artbooks now!

MICHELLE: I think there’s a general sense of affectionate amusement about most things coming out of ’80s culture, really. I love ’80s manga, personally, but yes, I did find it pretty funny when a dancing Cipher is deemed to be as cool as Michael Jackson, or when Narita-sensei professes in the comments, “The source of my strength, just like always, has been The Thompson Twins.”

Asako, you make a great point about Narita’s layered storytelling. I didn’t think of it like that—introducing us to the twins first through Anise’s eyes, then widening the story’s scope with a purposeful sequences of events. I really loved each brother’s relationship with his newfound friend. We learn that Roy felt that he behaved childishly in his past, and so perhaps he had tried to grow up too fast and hadn’t enjoyed some of the simpler pleasures that Hal makes it his mission to introduce him to. Jake felt he always had to be the reliable one—in fact, he wanted to be needed—but then he makes friends with Levine (aka Alex, Alexandra), who is sensitive but also resilient and tough.

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When Jake first meets Levine, he can’t bear to think of Roy and Dana at all, but gradually he allows himself to think about them, and then to talk about them. When one of Dana’s relatives has a baby and names it after her, Jake instantly adores the girl, and ends up breaking down a barrier with his mother for her sake. It all seems to happen very naturally. Too, I love that when everyone meets up again at the end, Hal and Levine are completely baffled that anyone could’ve ever mistaken one twin for the other.

And I, too, appreciated the details that Narita-sensei got right. I was delighted to note that, in one scene, characters are eating an Old El Paso dinner kit of some sort.

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ASAKO: In the first volume of the Tankobon edition, Narita-sensei talks about her trip to NYC, and she shares some pictures that she took during the trip. It sounds like she toured different neighborhoods to choose the neighborhood where twins and Anise should live. I thought it [was] funny but I was impressed at the same time that Narita-sensei even took pictures of TV commercials she watched in her hotel room. (Did you notice Cipher was watching a Betty Crocker’s new cake mix commercial?!) Very detailed artist.

Ah, thank you for explaining about the ’80s manga. To be honest, I have never thought of manga [as] “dated.” Well, in retrospect, I did notice different printing/layout techniques and art style. Maybe I am more comfortable with the ’80s manga because that’s what I grew up reading. Haha.

Back to Cipher, may I ask who is your favorite character(s) and why? I’m curious.

KAREN:That’s great to know some of the background of the creation! I think we’re all so spoiled with just being able to Google everything that people forget how hard it was to do research on such mundane topics—like cake commercials—in those days.

Asako, since you’ve had the advantage of seeing the Japanese versions, I had two questions—what is volume 12 of Cipher about? I’ve seen it listed on information sites and on Amazon.jp—is it side stories or does it add something? Also, have you read the Alexandrite sequel series—how is it in relation to Cipher?

My favorite character in Anise. She’s the entry to the world, and even when she’s in the background, she plays an important role. For all of the ways that she seems a little less mature, she shows such kindness and understanding, and that’s what breaks the shell around the twins. She can tell them apart at the end of the “challenge” but chooses not to—but she’s already opened up their world. I like her spirit, and watching her mature through the course of the series. It may not be as dramatic as what happens to Roy and Jake, but she becomes an important part to helping Jake discover his new life and gives Roy the space he needs until a reconciliation can happen.

I also like Hal—he’s so goofy at first but turns out to be so endearing.

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MICHELLE: I really like Hal, too, but I’d have to say my favorite is Siva. I like his complexity in that he’s the reliable one who is secretly dependent upon being depended upon, and I like how experiencing love (for both Danas, the original and her namesake) frees him to become his own person and to begin to understand the pain of others.

ASAKO: To be honest with you, I don’t remember what was in the twelfth volume. As soon as the bunko edition came out, I gave my tanko edition to my best friend (here in the US). That was long, long time ago. I vaguely remember it was about Levine, but I am not entirely sure. I’m sorry!

Dealing with the difference between tanko edition and bunko edition was a challenge for CMX. We had to make the English edition of the original tanko edition off of the bunko edition—does that make sense?? (:D). The pagination and proportion differences required a lot of effort on our end, and what’s more, cover materials were provided in transparencies (positive films), so they had to be scanned, cleaned and color corrected before we could use on the covers. It happened many times for other CMX books, too, but some of the cover images were not available from the licensor, so we had to scan art books or whatever the resources we could find (and of course, with Licensor permission and extensive approval process) to come up with something.

KAREN: That’s great information, Asako—but I think CMX did a great job, the covers especially were very pretty. Other companies seemed to have problems reformatting the Hakusensha-style “box on the cover” design to something that works in the American market, but this was very well done. Speaking of artbooks, I’m going to have to chase down that out-of-print artbook that came out way back when.

Cipher is thankfully one of those titles that’s easy to collect—it’s all out-of-print, of course, but most volumes go for well below cover, and a couple of others are above cover but nothing crazy—it’s an easy one to collect, so that shouldn’t be a deterrent to hunting down and enjoying this title. Yeah, it’s set in the ’80s, but there’s so much more to it than that.

MICHELLE: We hope we’ve inspired you to check it out, and would also like to extend our very sincere thanks to Asako Suzuki for joining us for this conversation!

ASAKO: Thank you for having me! Looking forward to more CMX reviews in the future!

MICHELLE: You’re in luck, because Oyayubihime Infinity is up next!

The CMX Project: Land of the Blindfolded

MICHELLE: Welcome to the first installment of a new feature called The CMX Project. Back in October, Karen Peck and I talked about the CMX series Canon for that month’s Manga Moveable Feast, and had such fun that we decided to start a recurring feature focusing on some of the other series they released during their all-too-brief time with us. For the most part these will be shoujo works, but not exclusively so.

Hi, Karen! Do you want to introduce our featured title for this month, or shall I?

KAREN: I’ll go!

blindfolded9Land of the Blindfolded, or Mekakushi no Kuni, is a nine-volume shoujo manga series by Sakura Tsukuba. It was one of CMX’s debut titles back in 2004, along with some classic titles like Swan and From Eroica with Love. Land of the Blindfolded originally ran in Hakusensha’s LaLa and LaLa DX magazines, and CMX would later go on to pick up another one of her series, Penguin Revolution. Besides these two works, her other series is the Christmas-themed Yoroshiku Master. The rest seems to have been mostly one-shots in different Hakusensha magazines—too bad I missed the two she did in Melody!

Kanade Outsuka sees a world full of people wearing “blindfolds.” But every once in a while, for her, that blindfold “slips” and she gets to see what others can’t—in her case, she can see a person’s future. Having a big heart and a determined spirit (as any good Hakusensha heroine should), Kanade will try to intervene if the future she sees will cause someone harm—even if the person she helps thinks that she’s just being weird. Two boys come into her life—Arou, who can see the past and carries around the heavy burden of his own past—and Namiki, who can also see the future but has a very different attitude about it than Kanade does. A sweet romance develops between Kanade and Arou… and I wouldn’t say “hijiinks ensue;” this title is entirely too gentle for much of that.

Michelle, what were your impressions?

MICHELLE: Initially, I was torn. There were certain elements of the story that I liked—the fact that Kanade and Arou become a couple with minimum fuss, Kanade’s spunky best friend (Eri), the neat side abilities that Arou’s power gives him…—but the first few volumes are very episodic and feature chapters with plots like “a plucky abandoned puppy is rescued from his doom during a rainstorm by an angsty boy affected by the protagonist’s shoujo heroine powers.”

The stories begin to take a more interesting turn in volume five, when Arou first uses his power in a new, freaky way to track Kanade after she’s swept away at the beach. And then shortly thereafter, he’s reunited with a classmate from junior high who wants him to use his powers to benefit society by helping to solve murders.

LotB-Arouwater

The rest of the volumes are all pretty good, though I’m most fond of volumes six and seven. I note, though, that Kanade really gets the short shrift after a while. She truly is the least interesting character of the bunch, and there is much more time devoted to the traumatic pasts suffered by Arou and Namiki than anything involving Kanade (excepting her decision to come clean to Eri about her ability).

KAREN: It is very episodic, and for me that’s what lead to my assessment of this as being very “gentle”—when stories wrap up each chapter, nothing really seems that dire. Instead, we get a series of ordinary events—the school festival. A clash with student government. The class trip. Hot springs hijinks (okay, so there is a little hijink-ing). The summer festival. And so on.

However, the banality of these events is contrasted with the very unordinary main characters. Here we have a girl who can see the future, but like any other girl her age, she worries about the very ordinary things—will people like the real me? Will I fit in? Can I tell my best friend all of my secrets? It’s this relatability that I think really speaks to the reader. Everyone has insecurities, even these “special” kids.

confession

The “plot” really does pick up later on. I was kinda hoping that Arou’s uncle would be more of a revolutionary character—he seems to have some rather dark intentions—but that fizzled out. I’m not sure if that was a red herring or Tsukuba sending off signals that she didn’t mean to.

I do agree with you, Michelle—Kanade seems to downright disappear in some of the stories, and I wish she had more of a presence. I also like that the coupling happens without a lot of drama—and while the back cover tries to play up the triangle, Kanade and Arou only have eyes for each other. Poor Namiki. At least he got a puppy.

MICHELLE: And possibly the world’s most adorable turtle!

turtle

I did find it interesting that although Land of the Blindfolded does include some stock shoujo scenarios—in addition to the ones you named there’s a trip to the amusement park, a trip to the beach, Christmas—they didn’t really annoy me as much as they do in series like, say, Ai Ore! Probably the likeable characters are responsible for that.

And yes, it’s largely the disclosure of the leads’ insecurities that make later volumes more compelling. Learning about Arou’s painful past wherein he was feared and shunned for his abilities makes the present where he is warmly liked and trusted by his classmates that much more significant. Now we can see how much it really means to him. And, too, we learn how scarred Namiki was by his mother’s timidity, and how this contributed to his rather jaded attitude when we first meet him. My absolute favorite scene in the whole series occurs between Namiki and Kanade’s mother, in which she tells him he’s a good boy and he starts to cry. I’m getting a little sniffly just thinking about it, actually.

goodboy

Yeah, the Sou thing did rather fizzle out, but it all played in to the warm and fuzzy “you are not alone” ending, so maybe that was all Tsukuba intended.

KAREN: That turtle was cute. And the pet-sitter bonus chapter was very cute.

I think it’s because Arou and Namiki had those much heavier pasts that Kanade gets lost. Well, she did see a vision of her grandfather’s death, but she’s from such a kind and accepting family that it becomes something to be overcome rather than something creepy that results in her ostracism. I agree with you, Michelle, about how affecting that one scene with Namiki and Kanade’s mother is—it’s really a moment when this story works. It’s a message that would work for any child that was rejected—that you are good. However, if every chapter/story in Land of the Blindfold was this emotionally wrenching, we wouldn’t be able to get through this review!

Of the secondary characters, I also liked Kaicho-san, the student council president. Her attraction to Arou was handled well, and I’m glad that it didn’t devolve into a Marmalade Boy-style Love Dodecahedron. I did like that it was hinting that Kaicho and Namiki might perhaps hook up, but it that was played well, and I think realistically. They would be good together, but for now they still have their hearts somewhere else. By not rushing them together, Tsukuba didn’t compromise their characters and what they had been about.

kaicho_namiki

The other beta couple, Eri and Ezawa, were presented as the Doomed Couple, but turned into something else, and so much of it was done in the background, as their story would pop in and out, showing their evolution as a couple.

I did want to say one thing about CMX’s presentation—I remember comments at the time about the tightness of the bindings, and wow, the first three volumes were very hard to read. I’m glad that they worked that out for later volumes so I didn’t have to worry about ruining the book when I opened it. The art… works, if that’s a way of putting it. Sakura Tsukuba isn’t one of the great shoujo artists, but her work is expressive and the humorous moments were very cute.

MICHELLE: I liked Kaicho a lot, too (though we eventually learn her last name, we never learn her first one), and was totally bracing for an eventual pairing off with Namiki. I think she could’ve been the heroine of her own manga series, actually.

We don’t learn too much about the inner workings of Eri and Ezawa’s relationship, but I definitely like that he became more interested in her once she showed she wasn’t going to fawn over him mindlessly like everyone else. She basically learns quickly that attempting to change yourself for someone never works, and then they turn out to be a stable couple from then on. Also, Tsukuba makes a few suggestions that they’re doing more than kissing while still keeping the content within an “E for Everyone” rating.

And yes, those fiendish bindings! I actually have the first five in that style and was desperately sick of them and so relieved when volume six came around. I hadn’t realized it, but I guess I hadn’t read any of the really early CMX volumes before this, so I didn’t know how terrible they were.

I don’t seem to have too much to say about Tsukuba’s art, actually. There were a few sequences that I quite liked, but that was more about what was happening in the scene than her skills. She does mention repeatedly how much she loves drawing animals, and adorable critters did seem to be her strong suit.

LotBPUPPY

KAREN: I caught that too with Eri and Ezawa. And how it totally flew over Kanade’s head.

Like most CMX series, Land of the Blindfolded is long out-of-print but easily and inexpensively obtainable on the secondary market. The infamous tight bindings vary—Michelle’s go up to volume five, mine only up to three, but they’re still readable. It’s a good title for the younger YA reader, because there’s nothing objectionable and it is such a sweet story—no questionable misogyny, for example. This is the sort of title that CMX did so well—and something that’s very much missed in the current market. (I’m sure there’s many YA librarians who agree!) Thankfully, though, they did manage to get so many titles out during their time—I’m looking forward to the next title we’re going to cover!

MICHELLE: Which is… drumroll please… Cipher, by Minako Narita! I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, so I’m really excited about next month’s column.

Thanks for joining us this month, and we hope you’ll be back next time!

Chatting About Canon

The following discussion contains spoilers.

MICHELLE: As we did for the CLAMP Manga Moveable Feast, special guest Karen Peck and I decided to collaborate on a contribution. This month’s MMF theme is vampires, so we opted (actually, this was totally Karen’s brainwave) to talk about Canon, the four-volume Chika Shiomi shoujo series published by CMX. I really didn’t know what to expect, having never read it before, but I think you had, right, Karen?

KAREN: I read it years ago, as I am a total Chika Shiomi fangirl, and figured the MMF would be a great excuse to talk about a lesser-known CMX series. A little background on Chika Shiomi and the series—Canon was her first series after her 1993 debut, running in Mystery Bonita Special. She’s one of those mangaka who’s had her work released by several English-language publishers—Night of the Beasts by Go!Comi, one volume of Queen of Ragtonia by Aurora, and Viz has most recently released Yurara and its sequel series Rasetsu. Her current work is Yukarism, a time-travel tale running in Bessatsu Hama to Yume, which is currently on hiatus.

Canon Himuro, ill with an incurable disease, was the sole survivor of a massacre that left her classmates dead. Months later a reporter runs into her, and she looks healthier than before—and carries a secret. Her classmates were attacked by a vampire, who then turned Canon into one. Horrified and wracked by guilt, she declares revenge on the vampire with silver hair and blue eyes. Holding onto her humanity, Canon refuses to drink blood, and wears a cross necklace given to her by a kindly foreigner, as explained in the second chapter. She is also accompanied by a vampire crow, Fui, who helps keep the story going and provides the humor. Canon is out for vengeance; Fui would just like a snack.

So, Michelle, what did you think of the series? Beyond the ’90s fashion, that is?

MICHELLE: I shall tell you, though we really must get back around to the fashion topic!

I ended up enjoying Canon quite a lot, though moreso in the first two volumes. The story begins episodically, and after a first volume that I’d describe as “not riveting, but entertaining,” the second volume packs a real wallop as Rod (such an intimidating name!)—the silver-haired, blue-eyed vampire—makes his entrance. By this point, Canon has met Sakaki, a smug and violent half-breed who’s also out for revenge against Rod (who murdered his parents), and they’ve formed an alliance. Fairly soon, though, Rod’s servants are telling Canon that their master lives as a hermit and couldn’t possibly be responsible for the attack upon her classmates, and suggesting that the real culprit is Sakaki. Canon resists the truth until Fui overhears a conversation confirming it (and is gravely wounded by Sakaki as a result).

I probably should’ve seen this reveal coming, but I was sort of enjoying the series in an uncomplicated way and wasn’t expecting it to veer into territory this dark. Ultimately, you’ve got Canon unable to forgive Sakaki, Sakaki unable to forgive Rod, and some uncomfortable parallels for Canon to navigate as her own hatred (fueled by the humiliation of having been tricked) threatens to undo her efforts to retain her human heart. It’s good stuff, really!

That said, I thought the entrance of Glenn as a common enemy kind of squandered the momentum a little. I mean, I’m glad that Rod and his awesome servant, Machua, got to become good guys, but Glenn lacks any real depth as a character, and I found his sudden change of heart regarding Canon—he’d previously been adamant about the need to exterminate her—rather baffling.

KAREN: The names crack me up, too. “Rod” just doesn’t sound… menacing. Rod and Glenn sound like they’d be assistant managers at an Office Depot, not powerful vampires.

It is good stuff! One thing I dislike about vampire stories—in manga and in print—is the angsty, boohoo I’m a vampire aspect. Canon does not wallow in that too much, the action is swirling around her and she’s a part of it all—she’s not a passive character. I think the shortness of this series helped as well; she had to stick to the unexpectedly twisty story–everyone has a motive, and they’re bound by vampire laws and revenge. Except Glenn. I agree with you, Michelle, that his change of heart is baffling–he’s the person that exists to move the story in one direction yet doesn’t seem to be upset that his purpose in the story is nullified by that direction. It’s a bit sloppy, but given how well she plotted out everything else, I’ll give Shiomi-sensei a pass since this is her first work.

As for the Canon/Sakaki relationship, at first I didn’t get it. After some consideration, though, it does fit in with what Canon was trying to get through to Sakaki and Rod–to stop the cycle of vengeance, that everyone can move on. Yes, Sakaki created Canon and messed with her memories to create a weapon to get at Rod in an exquisitely personal way, but her own words apply just as much to herself. She could kill him for her own vendetta, or she could remember that little boy who was left bleeding next to the corpses of his parents and understand what drove him. There’s a theme of forgiveness and breaking cycles here that I think is (mostly) well-done.

So, back to the fashion. Canon’s ankle boots have actually come back around to being fashionable again, but I fear that Rod’s overcoat on top of a turtleneck overcoat look will never be repeated. I suppose hermit vampires who feel bad about killing their best friends are just naturally chilly?

MICHELLE: I hadn’t actually seen that about Rod’s garb until you pointed it out, but once I did, I couldn’t stop noticing it. I think I thought the black one was a cloak at first, but upon closer inspection, it clearly has sleeves.

You’re absolutely spot-on about Canon remembering the terrible things that had happened to Sakaki that caused him to inflict terrible things upon her. And though it might feel like a betrayal of her classmates, she can’t stop loving him. This reminded me a lot of Shuri and Sarasa in Basara, actually, where she is able to forgive him for the atrocities committed as the Red King, even though other villagers will never be able to. And, of course, any time something can be compared to Basara is a good sign!

Speaking of comparisons to other works, the side story in volume four about the other half-breed who briefly takes care of orphaned Sakaki reminded me a lot of Shion’s backstory in Please Save My Earth, as another example of a boy in such tremendous need who tragically loses yet another person who could’ve shown him love. And Sakaki’s physical appearance reminds me some of Tokyo Babylon‘s Seishirou, especially round about the shoulder region.

Actually, Sakaki’s got some fashion challenges of his own to surmount. In this picture, his coat’s billowing so much it looks like a frickin’ hoop skirt!

KAREN: I know–why does he need two coats? I think it’s a little hypocritical of a vampire to wear turtlenecks anyway.

Now you’re reminding me that I need to finish reading Basara! But it’s a good comparison, and one that reflects favorably on Chika Shiomi–I think a lot of people can write a love story, but it’s harder to write one where it makes sense and is right for the characters. Hand-waving with a “that’s how love is!” is lazy, and she doesn’t take the easy way out. The ending offers a further complication, but again, it goes with the feeling that the characters really need to want this instead of just engaging in relationship fanservice.

The art—especially for Sakaki—really had a CLAMP-circa-X vibe going on, but this was 1994. I also enjoyed Machua’s style, even if it wasn’t as flamboyant and flowing.

MICHELLE: I liked her, too, though at first I thought she might be a dude!

The art really is frequently lovely in that early-’90s kind of way. Below I’ve included an image of one of my favorite two-page spreads, where you’ve got all sorts of overlapping panels, huge flowers, leads superimposed over a background of space… My cynical side wonders if Shiomi had a checklist of specific items to include, but the overall effect is still one I enjoy. And, of course, I can’t help thinking that Melinda Beasi, with her well-documented love for old-school shoujo art, would just love this to pieces. (Click image to enlarge.)

KAREN: This is some lovely ’90s art, and it holds up pretty well—Canon herself (sans ankleboots) could just as easily be a design in a modern Chika Shiomi work. I also enjoyed her eye for action–I was a little unsure about how the vampires were always leaping about, but I assume it’s a case of Our Vampires Are Different. The pages you picked show how nice a page with flashbacks and conversations can be–it’s not just good storytelling, it also sets an emotional mood that really sells the scene for me.

I’m glad there was a Vampire MMF to make me get this series off the shelf and re-read it. It’s one of those quiet CMX series that came and went with little fanfare, but shows how well-curated their shoujo line was–I’m sure they could have found a more sensationalistic vampire manga with prettier, broodier boys, but this is one with an overall strong story and a tough heroine. It may not be a classic on the lines of contemporary works like X, but it’s cheap on the used market and, in my opinion, a good short series.

MICHELLE: I definitely agree! Thank you for suggesting it!

And now, an announcement: because Karen and I had such a good time reading Canon, it really fanned the flames of “Damn, we miss CMX.” And so, to help offset our still-lingering pain, we’ve decided to embark upon a monthly feature called The CMX Project, where we will revisit both the lauded and the lesser-known works from the CMX catalog. Look for the first column—featuring Land of the Blindfolded—in January 2013!

Chatting About CLAMP

The following discussion contains spoilers.

MICHELLE: For this month’s CLAMP Manga Moveable Feast, special guest Karen Peck and I decided to weigh in on couple of the quartet’s shorter works, namely Suki (complete in three volumes) and Legal Drug (unfinished in three volumes, but newly relaunched in Japan under the name Drug & Drop). I’d heard these series were related in some way, too, though that turned out to be little more than a cameo.

Anyway, let’s start with Suki! Child-like Hinata Asahi is a first year in high school who is extremely book smart, but trusting to an excessive degree. She lives alone with two teddy bears, and when the guy who moves in next door turns out to be her substitute homeroom teacher, Hinata takes a liking to him. Shiro Asou is kind of prickly, but does a few things for Hinata that make her feel all warm and fuzzy, like patting her on the head and helping her sweep some leaves in her yard. Hinata’s obvious affection for Asou-sensei troubles her friend, Touko, and it’s Touko’s concern (coupled with hinting about Hinata’s past) that lends a welcome ominous vibe to the story.

KAREN: Ah, Suki! I read this when it first came out, and thought it was a nice little trifle—enjoyable but not especially notable. Hinata is one of those CLAMP heroines who is impossibly sweet and naïve, but it’s forgivable—because she should be a darker, sadder character, what with living alone in an empty house, her father only a distant figure, and having been through some intense events in her past. In Cardcaptor Sakura, you could see where all of [Sakura’s] abundant sweetness comes from—she comes from a world of love and security. That Hinata is still such an innocent, despite her situation, is very interesting.

It’s that ominous vibe you noted, Michelle, that does make this story a little more interesting—I think three volumes of Hinata and teddy bears would have been adorable, but pure fluff. Reading through the series, I also like the ambiguity of Asou-sensei—despite HInata’s affection for him, the story really feels like it’s building him to be another bad thing in Hinata’s life.

MICHELLE: HInata actually reminded me quite a lot of Sakuya from Natsuki Takaya’s Twinkle Stars, both in her demeanor and with the family secrets lurking in the background. (I think the similarity also sprung to mind because it was another case where I was used to reading a creator’s fantasy-infused manga but was now reading something taking place firmly in the real world.) But yes, one has to wonder how she was able to maintain her trusting spirit despite, we later learn, having been kidnapped nine times as a child.

I definitely enjoyed the build suggesting Asou-sensei was going to do something nefarious, and I admit to being disappointed that he merely turned out to be a bodyguard sent by Hinata’s father. The whole setup—lonely, selfless teen falls in love with enigmatic older guy—reminded me a little of Tokyo Babylon, but in the end CLAMP follows a more stereotypically shoujo storyline by offering redemption and a happy ending. It felt like all of the wonderful worrying Touko got up to just kind of petered out into very little payoff.

KAREN: Maybe Hinata maintains her child-like spirit by reading cute books about teddy bears? The book-within-the-book, another Suki, is precious.

I didn’t mind the payoff/ending. Terrible things happened to Hinata—and I’m sure that this kidnapping was a good deal more personal than past ones—but she remains unchanged. Hinata is still the same trusting person she always was, as was foreshadowed in a conversation with Asou-sensei—after he warned her that she would be sorry for living in her dream world, she replied, “No, I won’t. The people around me are all people I love. None of them are bad people. Not now, not ever.” And this plays out in the end—not only does she forgive her kidnappers, she convinces her father to help them. While a dark ending would have been more interesting, this story, for all the hints otherwise, was always going to be sweet. Like in CCS, a kind-hearted girl is tested but not broken, and continues on to share her loving nature with those around her.

MICHELLE: Yeah, you’re totally right. And I guess they can’t all be shocking endings, otherwise they would cease to be shocking!

I did like the book-within-a-book segments, something that we also see a little later in Chobits. If it didn’t involve a lot of physical labor to unearth my copies, I could check to see if the author of those picture books was the same Tomo! But I am lazy.

KAREN: I’ve not even read Chobits, so I’m no help whatsoever!

So my old assessment—that it’s a nice little story, prettily told—remains true for me after this re-reading. Not one of the great classics of CLAMP’s, but enjoyable all the same.

MICHELLE: I can agree with that!

Moving on to Legal Drug… as mentioned in Friday’s Let’s Get Visual post, this is a series that gets compared a lot to xxxHOLiC. Seventeen-year-old Kazahaya Kudo has run away from home and been rescued by Rikuo Himura. Both of the boys are live-in workers at Green Drugstore, managed by the enigmatic Kakei, and also take on the occasional odd job for their employer, which typically involve using Kazahaya’s ability to see visions when he touches people and objects to find various items.

Kazahaya and Rikuo aren’t friends, and fall into the spazzy/stoic dynamic characteristic of the early Watanuki/Doumeki relationship. There seems to be more overt romantic chemistry between them, however, which CLAMP plays up in the third volume, which finds them going undercover at an all-boys’ school.

KAREN: First, on a totally shallow level, I love Tokyopop’s presentation for Legal Drug. Vellum! Color pages! I’m totally a sucker for things like that.

I get the xxxHOLiC comparison; it’s one I’ve used before to describe it. However, Kakei isn’t quite Yuuko, luckily for Kazahaya and Rikuo!

My enjoyment of this series has always been tempered by its unfinished status—I really was wanting more details about the boys’ past which had been teased throughout the entire series. But what did you think of the stories—the “jobs,” Michelle? I think that they tended to be more personal than the stories in xxxHOLiC, which made them a little more central to the story.

MICHELLE: I think that if I had read this previously—before the resumption of the series in Japan—I would’ve been extremely frustrated by the lack of follow-through with the hints and glimpses we get of Kazahaya’s twin sister, Kei, and the mysterious woman in Rikuo’s past, Tsukiko. Now, I can feel more confident that CLAMP will address those story elements, even though there’s no guarantee we’ll ever see Drug & Drop in English.

As for the jobs, it’s been so long since I last read xxxHOLiC that I can’t really compare them, but I do agree about them seeming very central to the story. What first comes to mind is the cat that the boys rescue, who initially seems ordinary, then is revealed to be something supernatural, and then thanks its rescuers by showing them images of Kei and Tsukiko. That’s a perfect example of what you’re talking about, I think.

KAREN: Drug & Drop is now being published in a seinen magazine, so if we ever get to see it here, it will be interesting to see how it changed—will Kazahaya be in a dress as often?

Going back to our first title, there is a cameo by Hinata and Asou-sensei from Suki in volume two (chapter nine) which only shows that sometime after the events of that series, Hinata is still the same girl—who would think that there’s nothing odd about a strange boy asking for her school uniform, and who is able to draw others out. It’s a nice callback for a cameo.

Because the jobs tend to be about objects rather than people, the stories don’t have the larger emotional punch that some of the xxxHOLiC ones do, but that does allow Kazahaya and Rikuo to have more of the focus. I also liked how most of volume three was about one job—and that gave the story of the school and Nayuki room to breathe. It was a little dark at times, and maybe rambling, but it worked…

MICHELLE: I liked that about it, too, though I admit being a little annoyed at how much flailing about Kazahaya seemed to do during that story. It almost seems like the manga takes a sharp turn into generic BL, with the sudden schoolboy dynamic, Rikuo doing a little too well with his pushy seme impersonation, and the random school traditions of voting for a pretty boy to be a “bride” who wears the costume of his fans’ choice, but there were some nice ominous turns to keep it from worrying me too much. I am fairly certain the seinen Drug & Drop will definitely have less of that, though.

KAREN: There was a lot of flailing through the entire series, and I agree with you that it could be annoying. I get it, there’s tension/chemistry. But I like Kazahaya and Rikuo, and Rikuo is never creepy in his pushy seme moments, so I don’t mind it overall. But I don’t like being teased—I hope that running in a seinen mag, the new series can build their relationship with less blushing into something more concrete to where we see some solid character development.

Post-xxxHOLiC, I like Legal Drug less than I remember. Hopefully whatever CLAMP has in store with the characters in Drug & Drop will provide some satisfaction. As Kakei said in the last chapter of volume three, “We’ve been waiting a long time… for that boy and Rikuo to meet,” so hopefully we’ll see where this is all supposed to go.

MICHELLE: Well put! We share the same hopes for this series, it sounds like.

Thank you for joining me in this conversation today!

KAREN: And thank you for the opportunity!

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: Takehiko Inoue

MICHELLE: It’s been a while, but Let’s Get Visual has awoken from its hibernation in time to celebrate the Takehiko Inoue Manga Moveable Feast. Joining me for this occasion is special guest host Anna Neatrour, who is also co-hosting the MMF with me! Welcome, Anna!

ANNA: Thank you! I am excited to join in on a Let’s Get Visual post for Takehiko Inoue, because I think he is one of the top contemporary manga artists. He has an incredibly detailed and realistic style that really sets his manga apart from other series.

MICHELLE: I just started reading Vagabond the other day, and there was one close-up picture of Takezo drawn with extreme care and obvious skill, and I thought, “Y’know, this should be the image that all manga fans carry around to immediately dispel the misconceived notion that all manga looks alike and/or involves big, sparkly eyes.”

ANNA: I think that Inoue’s style (particularly in Real and Vagabond) is probably more reader-friendly to Western comics fans who haven’t read much manga before.

MICHELLE: Yeah, probably so. I’ve often thought that Western comic fans would probably like a bunch of seinen manga if they’d give it a chance.

Anyways, I suppose we should proceed to get visual! The images I’ve chosen are the very first pages in the very first volume of Real.

Real, Vol. 1 (VIZ Media)

I chose these images because they demonstrate how well Inoue is able to communicate Togawa’s character here without needing any words at all. Okay, sure, this guy is in a wheelchair, but he’s clearly driven. He’s pushing himself, possibly to the point of pain (if that’s what that one black panel represents). He has bulging muscles, so he’s clearly been at this a while. He’s moving fast. He may have a disability, but it doesn’t mean that he can’t take being an athlete seriously.

And then you turn the page and see that he is all alone. Inoue pulls back to show the entirety of the gym to emphasize Togawa’s solitude, and if that wasn’t enough, we get a glimpse of the empty school campus, as well. This sets the stage for what we later learn (which you mention in your review)—that Togawa’s attitude toward his wheelchair basketball team does not mesh well with his hobbyist teammates. Here’s a guy who is giving it his all, and he is the only one.

There’s just so much we can tell from this elegant introduction that it kind of blows me away.

ANNA: I agree that one of the things I like best about Inoue’s art is how much the images are able to contribute to the storytelling of his manga without overtly telling the audience anything. The themes touched on in the images you showed are addressed again later in the manga. Togawa’s ego and isolation contribute to his central struggle in the manga, and at the same time his willingness to practice all by himself shows just how dedicated he is to his sport.

MICHELLE: I will always, always be a big fan of nonverbal storytelling, so Inoue really wins my heart here by going above and beyond impressive art.

Want to tell us about the images you picked?

ANNA: The panels I chose were from Volume 26 of Vagabond, collected in the ninth VIZBIG edition of the series.

Vagabond, Vol. 26 (VIZ Media)

One of the reasons why I love Vagabond so much is that the fight scenes are never merely about two people fighting. There’s always a psychological or philosophical element involved. We see Miyamoto Musashi in a midst of battle against 70 members of the Yoshioka sword school, an ambush he willingly walked into. As he battles, he’s focused on centering himself and living in the moment. The close-up panels of his face show the process of self-reflection even as he is mowing down his opponents.

MICHELLE: That’s a really striking sequence. I like how he seems to be looking off into the horizon as he tells himself to have no aspirations for the future, as if to acknowledge the existence of other paths that he’s not allowing himself to take. Granted, I’ve not read the series that far—I’m barely on volume two—but it almost seems to me like he could walk away from this fight if he wanted to, but he’s not letting himself do it. Is that anywhere near the case?

ANNA: I don’t think Musashi is capable mentally of walking away from a fight like this. There are a lot of things that lead up to this sequence of many chapters where Musashi takes on the entire sword school, but one thing that struck me about the battle as a whole is that while you see Musashi getting beaten down and injured, towards the end Inoue almost has the reader concluding that it was really unfair to the 70 men who were planning on ambushing and attacking Musashi from behind that they had to go up against this one particular single opponent. Vagabond’s
fight scenes are always interesting, even when they stretch on for hundreds of pages, simply because the exquisitely rendered battles are contrasted with the internal struggles of the people who are fighting. Battle is as much of a mental exercise as it is a physical one.

MICHELLE: That’s an interesting point! So far I’ve only seen a few fights, and there hasn’t been much on Takezo’s (as Musashi is known at that point in the story) mental state yet. But I definitely admired the pacing and structure of Inoue’s artistic approach to battle—even watching Takezo just turn around and notice one opponent still standing becomes something frankly terrifying.

ANNA: One the things I enjoy about Vagabond is seeing the way Musashi changes over time. The man fighting the sword school in these panels has a measured sense of self and an inner stillness as he fights opponent after opponent. This is totally different from the way Takezo is portrayed in the earlier volumes, where he is more arrogant and animalistic.

MICHELLE: I definitely look forward to seeing how he gets from point A to point B. I admit, I still prefer Inoue’s sports-related series, but there’s just no denying that Vagabond is a masterpiece.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and we hope we’ve inspired you to check out some Inoue!

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: Celebrating the Pretty

MICHELLE: The long-awaited return of Sailor Moon has inspired us to devote this month’s column to classic shoujo art, focusing on a celebration of its sheer prettiness. Normally, we try to be astute in these columns—their whole purpose is to provide experience in seriously considering the artistic merits of manga—but it’s possible that this time we’ll be reduced to just sighing happily.

MELINDA: Yes, it’s quite possible indeed. But honestly, I think that’s valuable in its own way, and maybe we’ll end up learning a little something about why these things make us sigh happily.

MICHELLE: Perhaps so!

So, for my contribution I’ve chosen two memorable moments from the first volume of Naoko Takeuchi’s Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon. The first one comes from a chapter in which the protagonist, Usagi Tsukino, has infiltrated a masquerade ball in an effort to determine whether the Legendary Silver Crystal might be found there. Possible foe/possible ally Tuxedo Mask is also on the crystal’s trail, but pauses to give Usagi a twirl on the dance floor.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Volume 1, Chapter 4, Pages 142-143 (Kodansha Comics)

Takeuchi’s art perfectly captures the sheer dreaminess of this encounter for Usagi. In the top panel, the lacy screentone mimics the flare of her skirts, and the way that the smaller panels are framed focuses attention on facial expressions and reinforces the feeling that no one and nothing is capable of intruding upon this perfect moment for them.

And, of course, her dress is purty.

MELINDA: This sequence truly is dreamy. What particularly pulls me in here is the screentone. Its texture brings a 3D quality into this 2D world, as though the moment was preserved and wrapped up in an elaborate scrapbook that I could reach out and touch—as though it was someone’s real memories of the moment. Even just looking at something that has such a familiar texture stimulates my sense of touch, bringing me more fully into the scene. I think this kind of tangible decoration not only lends a fairy-tale dreaminess to the scene, but also makes it feel more personal for the reader.

MICHELLE: Ooh, you’re right, it does feel like a page from a scrapbook! In that sense, the screentone almost seems like it represents a snippet of the actual material of Usagi’s dress.

In addition, Usagi has used her transformation gadget for this chapter and is supposed to appear a little older than usual. I think her expression on the lower left page captures that subtle distinction nicely.

MELINDA: I’ll note too, that while this particular brand of big-eyed shoujo tends to get a lot of flack outside shoujo fandom, that it’s Usagi’s big, shining eyes that really let us know how she feels here, and just how dreamy this moment really is for her (and subsequently for us).

MICHELLE: You know, I think I’ve become inured to the big-eyed thing, except with extreme cases, because I don’t even notice it anymore. It just seems like such an obvious way to convey youth and wonder.

My second “memorable moment” is an example of a Sailor Moon action sequence.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Volume 1, Chapter 5, Pages 188-189 (Kodansha Comics)

In its way, this selection is just as pretty as the other one. Luna tosses Makoto her transformation pen, which glows in an appealingly magical girl fashion, transforming the girl—who is somewhat insecure about her physique—into Sailor Jupiter, someone both beautiful and powerful. Meanwhile, the enemy lurks on a nearby rooftop, and I’m impressed how this single panel so effectively establishes setting and atmosphere when one doesn’t have the preceding pages to furnish that information. Makoto’s first attack is simultaneously feminine and effective, giving her the opportunity to vanquish the enemy with her thunder bolt on the next page.

Looking back at some of the adjectives used in the paragraph above, I find that they aptly convey what it is I like about this moment: beauty and power, femininity and effectiveness. Sailor Moon shows that these things need not be mutually exclusive.

MELINDA: Those are great adjectives, Michelle, and actually this brings up a point I’ve been wanting to make since I listened to the podcast you participated in about Sailor Moon.

When male manga fans are trying to explain why something written for girls might be appealing to them as well, they will often attribute this to what they perceive as male or “shounen” elements in the story, like team-building or action sequences. And while I appreciate their enthusiasm for the work, I’m a bit perplexed as to why these would be considered exclusively “shounen” to begin with. Sure, certain genres of shoujo manga might share these things in common with certain genres of shounen manga, but I honestly don’t see what’s not inherently shoujo about them. Girls enjoy things like action, adventure, teamwork, and battling evil just as much as anyone, and there’s nothing odd or incongruous about these elements standing alongside things like beauty and femininity. These things naturally coexist in the minds of many girls, and when they’re all put together, they are not only exciting and inspiring, but really freaking pretty.

MICHELLE: You’re right, and though I agreed with them that there were some “shounen” elements to Sailor Moon, I didn’t mean to imply that they’re not just as easily shoujo elements, but simply story aspects that are more common to shounen manga. If that makes sense.

MELINDA: I guess what I’m saying is, though maybe there are more shounen action series than there are shoujo action series, it’s not as if it’s uncommon in shoujo. The entire magical girl genre pretty much exists in that realm, and those series share as much or more in common with fantasy, adventure, or sci-fi shoujo like Basara, X/1999, or They Were Eleven as they do with shounen manga—all of it very shoujo and very pretty.

I don’t mean to derail this discussion with my shoujo manifesto, though, so please forgive me. I’m just happily overwhelmed by the sparkly loveliness of this action sequence.

MICHELLE: No worries; I agree with you. But perhaps we should move on. What pretty shoujo have you chosen?

MELINDA: Well, it may seem like an odd choice, given the vast pool of classic pretty to choose from, but I’ve chosen an 8-page scene from volume three of Reiko Shimizu’s Moon Child, and there are a number of reasons why.

Moon Child, Volume 3, Pages 146-153 (CMX)

First, of course, there is quite a bit of objectively lovely imagery in the later panels of the scene, including rippling water, a flowing seascape, and a billowy-haired mermaid, all rendered with a perfect balance of simplicity and detail. I’m particularly fond of Shimizu’s style of character design as well, which is very much in step with most of the ’80s and early ’90s manga I’ve read. For whatever reason, this is probably my very favorite period for shoujo character design.

Most of all, though, there is an eerie, vaguely melancholy tone throughout the entire scene, particularly the first two pages, which I will admit are my favorite. I even consider them the prettiest of the whole sequence, though they have none of the flowing seascape that decorates the rest of the scene. They are, however, beautifully strange, and a perfect example of what I personally find prettiest in shoujo manga. This may seem like an odd thing to say, but I find the strangeness—this particular brand of strangeness—to be really, really beautiful. When I look at the first two pages of this sequence, I can feel the smooth surface of the water as the character brings his face near, touching the ends of his hair and the tips of his nose and chin. That smooth pool of water and the way he just falls slowly into it—it’s difficult for me to articulate exactly why I find it beautiful, but I really do.

Yes, I love these character designs, and the pretty page layouts, but sometimes what I find most beautiful about older shoujo manga is its strangeness. It brings to mind a dreamworld, I guess—one that looks like our world but somehow just isn’t in a way that engages the most obscure, most beloved corners of my imagination. These stories make themselves part of my private world, and I find them beautiful for it. If that makes any sense at all.

MICHELLE: It absolutely makes sense. And for what it’s worth, I studied the pages before I read your commentary and also felt that the exquisitely slow descent into the fountain was the loveliest part. I like, too, how Teruto slips into the fountain with such grace and barely a ripple and how this is contrasted off-panel by the little girl who has observed what happened. The inability of an everyday person to access the same magic only reinforces its strangeness.

MELINDA: Yes, exactly! It seems so clear that he exists in a different state of being from the regular people around him, which is part of what makes it feel so dreamlike, I think. There is a lot of that kind of thing in this series, which is really, exquisitely strange. I think the dreamlike tone makes it easier to suspend disbelief as well.

MICHELLE: From the examples we’ve both chosen, it seems that, to some extent, it’s the dreaminess of pretty scenes that is at least partly responsible for the happy sighing. Of course, we realize that real life is seldom so lovely, but it’s nice to abandon oneself for a while in a reality where that sort of thing really can happen.

MELINDA: I think where I often find solace in shoujo manga, is that it offers exactly what you describe—a reality that contains the stuff of dreams—but held together by real human feeling, such that even the wildest tale can often shine much-needed light on our real-life emotional turmoil. At the heart of all this strange, sparkly fantasy, there is a solid base of real emotional truth, which is sometimes easier to face when it’s presented in a pretty, dreamlike package.

MICHELLE: Well put! I think that’s one of the major strengths of genre fiction in general, actually, no matter the media.

MELINDA: Agreed! Of course, nothing does “pretty” quite like classic shoujo.

MICHELLE: Indeed not. That’s just icing on the cake!

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!