One of the more exciting manga-related announcements to come out of San Diego Comic-Con was the debut of VIZ’s new online manga portal, which syncs user accounts between the web browser and various supported devices. This is great news for me: since I don’t own any of those supported devices, I’ve been hoping a site like this would come along.
Of the assortment of shoujo, shounen, and seinen series available on the site, the two-volume Backstage Prince by Kanoko Sakurakoji—whose smutty supernatural series Black Bird is currently being published by VIZ—caught my eye, and being both short and something I didn’t already own in print, seemed like the perfect vehicle through which to test out the VIZmanga interface. (For Melinda Beasi’s thorough report on both the VIZ and Square Enix online initiatives, click here.)
I had an utterly hassle-free experience creating an account and browsing the manga available on the site. There are two options for paying for one’s purchases: Paypal and Amazon. Since most people already have payment information saved in at least one of these places, this makes for a convenient checkout experience. My one complaint is that I had to go through the payment process separately for each volume, which I’m sure would get really annoying if one were buying more than just two volumes. It would be nice if there were an “add to cart” function so multiple volumes could be purchased simultaneously.
The web viewer requires no software installations and defaults to a two-page layout in a size I’d describe as “mostly readable.” To resize to full screen (“perfectly readable”) or to set a bookmark, users must hover their mouse pointer over the top of the image until a taskbar appears. (I discovered this by accident, and would recommend that VIZ make the option much clearer somehow.) When you set a bookmark and return to the manga later, you’re still taken to the beginning initially, but clicking on the bookmark icon by the progress bar underneath the viewer will quickly take you where you want to go. Aside from the taskbar hiccup, navigation is intuitive and easy.
Akari is a thoroughly ordinary girl with no interest in kabuki, but when she accidentally bruises the distinguished son of a famous kabuki family, she agrees to become his assistant until he heals up. Ryusei Horiuchi is bad around people—his only friend is his cat, Mr. Ken—but gradually warms up to Akari, who does not approach him with expectations only to be disappointed when he turns out to be so stiff and unfriendly. They’re a couple by the end of the first chapter.
Various challenges to their relationship appear in subsequent chapters. A pretty costar for Ryusei, possessive fangirls, Ryusei’s disapproving father… Most disruptive is Naoki, a kabuki understudy who finds it extremely easy to undermine Akari and Ryusei’s confidence in their relationship, so is always inspiring angst and insecurity in the former and anger and jealousy in the latter. All of this opposition is supposed to be making them a stronger couple, but if you think it grows tiresome to read, you are correct!
On the surface, Backstage Prince is a lot more tame than Black Bird. Akari isn’t sought after by demons who want to devour and/or ravish her and Ryusei isn’t controlling or purposefully cruel to her, but the series is still guilty of some backwards gender politics, and perhaps in an even more insidious manner.
You see, Ryusei needs Akari in order to do his job well. Whenever he gets stressed out from dealing with all those people, he rushes back to his dressing room to be with Akari, with whom he is able to relax. This might not sound so bad, but the end result is that he expects her to be there all the time while he is working. And she’s apparently just sitting there, staring into space, waiting for her man to come and give her purpose, because at one point her grades take a nosedive (any sensible girl would at least use the time to study!) and she’s dismissive of her parents’ concern. Akari quite literally has no goals in her life other than being near Ryusei. I find this far more depressing than romantic.
The bottom line: if you’re open to the idea of reading manga online, VIZ’s new site provides a clean, simple, and legal way to do so. I can definitely see myself using the site again in the future and recommend it without reservation. But maybe you should read something other than Backstage Prince.