Haunted House

By Mitsukazu Mihara | Published by TOKYOPOP

I blame my “meh” reaction to Mitsukazu Miharu’s Haunted House—which I honestly wanted to like!—on the back cover, which promises that readers will be “kept guessing—and giggling” by the behavior of Sabato Obiga’s flamboyantly goth parents. I might’ve smiled a time or two, but that’s about it.

The basic premise here is simple and reiterated several times throughout the volume: Sabato would like a steady girlfriend, but they inevitably ask to see his house, which means they will have to meet his bizarre, “death-flavored” family and be scared off by their creepy antics. Sabato’s mother strongly resembles Morticia Addams, his father (despite being a banker) often sports a sort of Victorian dandy look, and his twin sisters have a gothic lolita vibe and spend their free time making voodoo dolls. The Obiga family also likes to decorate their home with skeletons and shrines and threatens to serve the family cat for dinner. Sabato always obtains their promise to behave before inviting a girl over, but this is invariably broken.

Haunted House is pretty repetitive, but I think I wouldn’t have been dissastified with it if the powers that be at TOKYOPOP hadn’t strongly hinted that Sabato’s family has some reason for treating him like they do. Okay, yes, they abruptly promise to support him when it seems that he, after fancying a long string of random ladies, seems to have fallen in love at last, but it’s not like they actually follow through with this in any meaningful way.

Looking kooky is one thing, but they’re frequently just down-right mean. At one point, Sabato is hospitalized with a broken leg and his family comes to visit. Most of what they do is innocuous—bringing him only hospital-themed horror novels to read, for example—but his mother actually feeds him dog food. I just don’t get it. Is that supposed to be funny? Is that supposed to be someone who is merely tormenting their kid, as the back cover implies, in an effort to encourage him to grow up, become an independent person, and stop pursuing meaningless relationships with random girls?

I don’t know, but I am certain that I am thinking too hard about this. And I partly blame the back cover that encouraged me to expect more from a story that is really just a diverting bit of goofiness.

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!

Fruits Basket 21-23 by Natsuki Takaya

As I recounted in this week’s Off the Shelf column, I have been a fan of Fruits Basket for nearly a decade now. I followed the end of the series in Japanese, and because I knew how it ended, I was able to postpone reading the final English volumes and delay the sad moment when the series really would be over. This week’s Manga Moveable Feast, however, prompted me to finally take the plunge.

Volume 21 is extremely tense, with Kyo continuing the story of how he redirected his feelings of guilt regarding the death of Tohru’s mother into a hatred of Yuki (just like his father redirected his own guilt in the death of his wife onto Kyo). Meanwhile, an ominous, knife-wielding Akito creeps up on their location. After Kyo seems to reject her feelings, Tohru runs off and crosses paths with Akito. A vitally important scene occurs between them in which Akito, weakened by lies and uncritical kindness perpetuated by various Sohma family members, is finally receptive to the kind of acceptance and sympathy Tohru offers. I’m a little disappointed that Tohru immediately falls off a cliff at this point, because that’s rather meloramatic, but I adore how urgently Akito attempts to summon help.

All of the Sohmas are worried, but none more so than Yuki (in cold fury mode) and Kyo (deeply grieving), who eventually have it out and end up finally confessing that they each aspired to be like the other. I love how this plays out, and I love that Yuki continues to nudge Kyo when necessary to ensure that Tohru ends up happy. Are they super pals by the end of the series? Not exactly, but they’ve definitely made their peace and come to an understanding. I’d say they’re closer than mere friends, actually, because they’ve gone through so much together, treasure the same person so much, and have finally realized that, despite appearances and insults, the person they are is valued by the other.

While Tohru recovers in the hospital, Kyo realizes that she’s given him something worth fighting his “fate” for. A visit to his father leads to paternal hysterics, but Kyo’s resolve is unshaken: he is going to live “outside,” no matter what. Meanwhile, Akito has made plans to demolish the isolation room. In the aforementioned Off the Shelf column, I wondered whether Akito’s actions might partly be due to some unconscious influence by the God who originally created the bond, as we later learn that he laments that something forged in love has now become a source of pain. He’s grateful to those who “shouldered that exhausted promise” for so long, and willingly lets them go. So, did he convince Akito in some way? Did Akito convince him? The latter would be more in line with the themes of the series, actually.

Uotani and Hanajima keep Kyo away from the hospital while Tohru is recuperating, since the mere mention of her name prompts her to start crying (she still believes he is disillusioned by her confession of love), but he’s finally tipped off regarding her release date and goes to see her. It’s an amazing scene: as Kyo heads there, he’s full of doubts and uncertainty regarding his own feelings, but the moment he sees her, everything is clear as day. “I love her.” I can’t help getting a bit choked up even discussing it, because it seems like I’m watching cherished friends finally find each other. They talk and work things out, and it is as lovely as can be. “I really do love you,” quoth Tohru, when Kyo warns he’ll probably cause her pain because the curse is still between them. “And that feeling is invincible.” They embrace and are profoundly shocked when Kyo does not transform. His curse is broken.

A wonderful chain-reaction montage ensues as the members of the Zodiac are freed in turn, with Yuki the last of all. “You’re the last,” says God. “Thank you. For keeping the very distant promise.” This happens just in time for Yuki, who had been on the verge of telling Machi about the curse, to embrace her in tears.

Loose ends are wrapped up in the final volume, more loose ends than I actually realized needed wrapping up, making for a very thorough and satisfying conclusion. It’s a little convenient that nearly everyone ends up romantically paired off by the end, with the exceptions of Momiji and Kagura, who are still not over their respective unrequited loves. Other things, however, aren’t wrapped up so neatly, with Rin unable to forgive Akito just yet, long-time family servants unable to adjust to the dissolution of the curse, and many painful feelings still remaining.

But, as a certain image reminded me, Takaya-sensei maintains the idea that “there is no such thing as a memory that’s okay to forget” to the end. The formerly cursed Sohma don’t need to forget what happened to them in the past in order to be happy in the future. Tohru believes this fully, collecting each of the beads from Kyo’s broken bracelet and displaying them as precious items alongside family portraits even until the day she and Kyo are lovey-dovey grandparents.

I cannot express enough how wonderful this series is. I feel so fortunate that I was able to witness the growth and transformation of such a memorable cast of characters, many of whom I dearly love.

A Pair of TOKYOPOP Stragglers

Just when it seemed like none of those May TOKYOPOP titles was going to materialize, Diamond Distributors revealed that it still had a few surprises up its figurative sleeve. Stragglers, originally scheduled for an early May release, began to trickle into comic shops. I managed to acquire several, including two books—volume eight of Happy Cafe and volume three of The Stellar Six of Gingacho—that I had lost all hope of ever seeing. Although I’m still incredibly sad about TOKYOPOP’s demise, I can’t help looking upon these last releases as an unexpected gift.

Happy Cafe 8 by Kou Matsuzuki
The eighth volume of Happy Cafe offers more cheerful yet insubstantial slice-of-life episodes revolving around the staff of Cafe Bonheur. We check back in with sixth-grader Kenji, Uru’s cousin, and meet the girl who likes him. We see Shindo apologize for making Uru cry, meet Ichiro’s doppelganger/father, and watch as two different guys try and fail to express their feelings for the oblivious Uru.

There are actually four guys now who fancy Uru, mostly because of her bright smile and talent at offering sunny advice as necessary. It’s a little much, but at least doesn’t feel as implausible as with series in which the heroine has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and yet seems to attract a bevy of hunky admirers. It also seems like Matsuzuki draws Uru in a regular style more often this volume—because she’s so childlike and spazzy, she’s usually in some state of super deformity but here we get a few, albeit fleeting, moments in which she looks genuinely pretty.

As a warning, however, readers of this volume are at risk of contracting the dreaded festitis (extreme irritability brought on by manga depictions of school festivals of any sort, including athletic). On the heels of Uru’s school festival in volume seven we first have Kenji’s athletic meet and then the school festival of Sou Abekawa, one of Uru’s suitors. I would seriously be happy if I never had to read about another school festival ever again.

So, how does this fare as the final volume (most likely) of Happy Cafe to be produced in English? Pretty well, actually. The episodic nature of the story precludes any sort of cliffhanger ending, and though Uru continues to be utterly clueless about the feelings she’s inspiring in the guys around her, it’s easy to imagine that, after several more volumes of cheerful yet insubstantial happenings, she will realize her feelings for someone (Shindo seems the most likely candidate) and a happy ending will ensue.

The Stellar Six of Gingacho 3 by Yuuki Fujimoto
Like Happy Cafe, The Stellar Six of Gingacho has so far been comprised of warm and fuzzy episodic stories featuring a childlike heroine who is “very dense when it comes to romance.” The third volume is no different, but takes the first tentative steps at fleshing out the other members of the group—while continuing to focus on Mike (Mee-kay) and her pal/partner Kuro, whose love for Mike is a secret to no one but her—and hinting a little at complications to come.

Chapters in this volume feature plots like “Mike and Kuro rescue a stray puppy,” “Mike insists that her friends go dig up a treasure they buried when they were five,” and “a photo of the boys appears in a teen magazine and fangirls descend.” But boiling them down in this way does them a disservice, because each chapter usually has at least one really nice moment, like Mike realizing that Kuro has always been there for her or the boys defending the honor of the girls when some punk insults them. In fact, the theme of the series could be summed up as “friends are precious and special.” If you don’t want to read stories in which this idea gets established over and over again, then The Stellar Six of Gingacho probably isn’t for you.

Although the volume doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, some glimpses of where the story might go make the lack of future releases particularly disappointing. Who is the object of ladies’ man Ikkyu’s (aka “Q”) unrequited love? (I hope it’s ultra-sensible Iba-chan.) Should I be expecting the six friends to form up into three tidy couples for a happy ending, or will messiness ensue when Sato’s feelings for Kuro come to light?

Sato provides the parting thought as we get a glimpse of an older Kuro. “To me you were special. But back then none of us truly understood what that “special” feeling really was. Not yet.” If you really want to get me hooked to a series, pepper it with retrospective narration like that. Jeez. Talk about bad timing.

Let’s Get Visual: Wild Adapter

MICHELLE: Hey, Melinda, did you know there was a Wild Adapter MMF going on?

MELINDA: I’ve heard rumors to that effect. Terrific series, Wild Adapter. Whoever is hosting it must have great taste!

MICHELLE: I’m relieved you think so, because in honor of the Feast, we’re devoting this month’s Let’s Get Visual column to that series!

MELINDA: We are? Oh! Yes, we are!

MICHELLE: One of the hosts has already done an admirable job scanning some of the many significant images from the series (at great personal cost) but that won’t stop us from talking about a few more.

In Wild Adapter, creator Kazuya Minekura tells her story through the eyes of observers. Sometimes these figures are opposed to our main protagonists—Makoto Kubota and Minoru Tokito—in some way, such as the detective in volume four or the new youth gang leader in volume six, and sometimes they are with them, either in a personal way (their young neighbor Shouta in volume five) or a more business-like fashion (Takizawa the journalist in volume three). In every case, though, we rely on their interactions with Kubota and Tokito to learn more about said fellows, since we are denied access to their thoughts.

As I reread the series, I noticed that Minekura also uses her art to support this narrative choice, and that she, in particular, uses a similar device several times where Kubota is concerned. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Volume 2, Chapter 11 (TOKYOPOP)

Here, Tokito stops Kubota, who has violently come to his rescue. Kubota instantly sheds any vestige of excitement, and throughout this two-page spread, his eyes, like his thoughts, feelings, and motivations, remain shielded. He’s distant and aloof. Yet when Saori suddenly realizes that Kubota is the one who’s possessive of Tokito, he offers her a small smile. She finds the experience scary, and I agree that it could be construed as an ominous expression, but it’s also a stunning moment of access to what Kubota feels.

MELINDA: I agree that it’s a stunning image, and while I can appreciate Saori’s response, like you, I’m mostly fascinated. As you say, Kubota is a character who deliberately shuts himself off from other people, and now, as we’re granted this tiny moment of access, it becomes really clear why. In these rare moments, with just a small smile and a real look into the eyes, he’s suddenly wide open to us, and the guy that we see in there is nothing like the person he displays the rest of the time. And that’s a guy he really doesn’t want people to know. Maybe he thinks that guy is scary, I don’t know. But it’s clear that when he does grant access, he’s pretty much an open book—probably more so than characters who are generally open to begin with. Does any of that make sense?

MICHELLE: It does, and you’ve provided me with an excellent introduction for my next example!

Volume 3, Chapter 18 (TOKYOPOP)

This scene takes place near the end of volume three, during which Kubota and Tokito have infiltrated a cult that they erroneously believe is connected to Wild Adapter. Here, the guys are looking very casual and cozy, and while Kubota admits to Tokito that he has become more human, he does it while facing away from the audience. We see the back of his head and a hand holding a cigarette as he speaks. This is a moment reserved for he and Tokito alone.

Kubota doesn’t say it outright, but it’s clear that it’s Tokito making him feel this way. And when Tokito goes on to lament their progress in their investigation, the warm and open-eyed smile of Kubota’s at the bottom of page two makes it clear he hasn’t yet changed mental gears. He’s still thinking about Tokito.

MELINDA: To me, these soft, openly caring eyes are just as much of a shock as the more terrifying look we see in your first example. It’s clear that both of these looks are genuinely Kubota, but you get the feeling that Tokito is the first thing that’s ever inspired the feelings behind this look.

I have to really admire Minekura’s skill with expression here, too. Though some aspects of her artwork are very detailed, she actually doesn’t include a lot of detail when it comes to eyes. Yet what she’s able to do with just the barest nuance is, frankly, incredible.

MICHELLE: But wait, there’s more! Minekura uses this technique again in volume four, with very different results!

Volume 4, Chapter 22 (TOKYOPOP)

Here, we see Kubota being interrogated by Hasebe for a murder that was committed in a hotel. Kubota’s not giving up any information, so it makes perfect sense that he would be evasive, as indicated by the closed eyes on the first page. Hasebe continues to push, however, and Kubota finally gives up pretense and opens his eyes, allowing us access once more. Only this time, we’re not seeing a warm and friendly Kubota; we’re seeing a coldly resolute one. The grey screentone over his face emphasizes that this is just a partial disclosure—he’s revealing the extent of his determination, but anything else is still off-limits.

MELINDA: It’s the narrowness of his gaze that really achieves this effect, but again, it’s done with most subtle detail. And you’re right, he’s giving the detective just exactly as much as he wants to give him, no more, no less. It really gives you a strong sense of how carefully he controls everything about himself, and just how rare the two previous examples really are.

MICHELLE: Yes, you’re quite right! The amount of openness Kubota will permit with other people is infinitesimal compared to what Tokito is allowed to see.

Well, that’s it for me and Kubota’s eyes. What images did you want to talk about?

MELINDA: I’d like to talk about a scene from the end of volume two. It’s one I’ve discussed a couple of times before, both in my initial review of the series and in my infamous post on “intimacy porn.” It’s one of my favorite scenes in the series, and I’ve already explained quite a bit about why.

Volume 2, Chapter 12 (TOKYOPOP)

As you can see, Tokito has hidden himself away in the shower to deal with pain in his claw hand, and as he wrestles with both the physical pain and emotional turmoil the hand causes him, he realizes that Kubota is on the other side of the shower door, doing laundry.

When I’ve talked about this scene before, my focus has always been on the incredible intimacy of it, and how beautifully Minekura creates this intimacy while putting a physical barrier between them. What I’ve never discussed before, however, is the detail that, in my view, is almost solely responsible for bringing us into the scene as readers, and that would be the sound effects.

I have no idea what the sound effects really say. I don’t read Japanese, and I haven’t asked anyone to interpret them for me, but really, I don’t have to. It’s actually the visual effect of the Japanese sound effects that makes them so effective.

We feel it from the beginning, with just Tokito—the soft sounds of the shower accompanying his thoughts. Then the rumble of the washing machine joins in as Kubota enters the scene. By the end, we’re surrounded by it all, the soft shower and the muffled rumbles of the machine, creating a shell of sound around the characters, isolating them from the rest of the world, but including us as intimate onlookers.

I’m always impressed by writers and artists who can create a real sense of place on the page, and Minekura has done this by surrounding us in these familiar sounds. We can imagine ourselves in the room—feel the rumble of the washing machine under our feet and the thick humidity of the steam as it wafts out around the edges of the shower door. It’s so beautifully done.

MICHELLE: Oh, I love the image of a shell of sound. I like, too, how the initial thump of the washing machine literally intrudes onto Tokito’s thoughts in the way that the sound effect bleeds over the edge of its panel and onto the next, where Tokito, with water streaming down his face, has now been momentarily distracted.

MELINDA: Yes, I love that frame you’re talking about, where the sounds of the washing machine suddenly intrude into Tokito’s thoughts. It’s as though the washing machine has spoken up to say, “We can hear what you’re thinking in there, and yes, he would be angry if you cut off your hand.”

MICHELLE: Do you actually want me to tell you what the sound effects say? Or is it better not to know?

MELINDA: Sure, tell me!

MICHELLE: The first one you see, and the one that appears most often and prominently, is “zaa,” which is frequently used alongside rain or falling water. It’s the “a” sound that travels down that first page and drifts across the final two-page spread. On the second page, when Tokito clenches his hand in pain, the sound effects say “zukin zukin,” or “throb throb.”

I was unfamiliar with the “goun” sound accompanying the first image of the washing machine, so consulted Google and found a site that helpfully describes “goun” as “the sound of a washing machine.”

MELINDA: Ah, helpful indeed.

MICHELLE: One of my motivations for teaching myself kana in the first place was to be able to decipher untranslated sound effects. It slows me down, reading each and every one, but it does add something to the atmosphere, I find.

Another thing I notice in this example is how Minekura treats the “zaa” sound effect, allowing it to trickle down the page along with the water in the first instance, and in the last, depicting it wafting laterally past Kubota, almost like escaping steam.

MELINDA: What’s really amazing to me, is how successfully this effect is achieved even without understanding the kana. The visual representation of the sound is so powerful all on its own.

MICHELLE: Definitely. Even if the sound effects weren’t there at all, one would still imagine the sound of running water. Their presence emphasizes the sound and its insular quality, though. I’m reminded of an earlier column, where we talked about the sound effects in Banana Fish. There, an image of a passing train automatically conjured the associated sounds, but the sound effects, through their domination of the page, took it to the next level by mirroring how the sound dominated the moment for the characters.

MELINDA: Here, the sound sort of cradles the moment, creating a sense of comfort and familiarity around something extremely vulnerable.

MICHELLE: Ooh, good verb. In both cases, the sound effects define the sound in some way, rather than simply reiterating that it’s there.

MELINDA: When I first started reading manga, I found sound effects distracting. I was so new to comics, I had a lot of trouble digesting all the visual information on the page, and sound effects just made that more difficult. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate just how much they contribute to the atmosphere of a scene, and how powerful they can be in the right hands.

MICHELLE: It’s like this whole other tool in the mangaka’s kit, and one that we don’t automatically think about.

MELINDA: Well said!

MICHELLE: Which brings us back around to the inescapable truth that Kazuya Minekura is brilliant and everyone should read Wild Adapter.

MELINDA: Yes, they should!

For more reviews, roundtables, and essays on Wild Adapter, check out the complete MMF archive.

Let’s Get Visual: Funny Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MICHELLE: Same here!

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

MELINDA: That it is. 🙂

TOKYOPOP Is Shutting Down

It’s with a heavy heart that I direct you to this piece at The Beat, which reports that TOKYOPOP is shutting down at the end of May. I have a feeling the worst of the sadness is yet to come, as I start to fully process which beloved series will be left in limbo.

Rather than dwell on that depressing thought, I figured I’d outline what is left on TOKYOPOP’s production calendar through the end of May, according to Amazon. Hopefully we will still get all these books. Maybe we won’t.

APRIL RELEASES:
(already in stock)
V.B. Rose 12
Silver Diamond 9
Gakuen Alice 16
Ratman 4
The Secret Notes of Lady Kanoko 2
Future Diary 10
Karakuri Odette 6 (at least this one got an ending!)
NG Life 9
Shinobi Life 7
Neko Ramen 4
Priest Purgatory (Volume one? There’s another one in May…)

(forthcoming)
Saving Life 1
Foxy Lady 4 (still says pre-order though its release date has passed)

MAY RELEASES:
Hetalia: Axis Powers 3
Maid Sama! 9
.hack//G.U. 4 (novel)
Priest: Purgatory
Happy Cafe 8
Fate/Stay Night 11
Sgt. Frog 21
Maid Shokun 1
Sakura’s Finest 1
Samurai Harem 8
Deadman Wonderland 5
AiON 3
Hanako and the Terror of Allegory 4 (an ending!)
Butterfly 2
Ghostface 1
The Stellar Six of Gingacho 3
Clean Freak, Fully Equipped 2 (another ending!)
The Qwaser of Stigmata 2 (see comments)

Series finales that had been scheduled but will now not materialize include V. B. Rose, Portrait of M & N, Alice in the Country of Hearts, and The Secret Notes of Lady Kanoko.

UPDATE: Sean Gaffney of A Case Suitable for Treatment has compiled a similar list, but also rounded up releases that will now never come to pass. You can find his post here.

UPDATE 2: A look at the (extremely depressing) list of removed items at RightStuf suggests that those May titles are not going to be released after all. This means that Karakuri Odette and NG Life were the last series TOKYOPOP actually managed to complete.

UPDATE 3: Several of the releases originally scheduled for early May have begun to appear in comic shops. No Hetalia or Maid Sama!, unfortunately, but we’ll at least get the final volume to Hanako and the Terror of Allegory.

Aqua 1-2 by Kozue Amano

Aqua is a slice-of-life charmer ideal for architecture buffs like me.

The year is 2301 and Akari Mizunashi has left Earth (Manhome) for Mars (Aqua), whose surface is now 90% water thanks to man’s tinkering. It is Akari’s goal to become an undine, or female tour guide who conveys sightseers by gondola through the canals of Neo-Venezia, a city modeled on Venice, which we are told existed until “the latter half of the 21st century.” She finds a place with the Aria Company and spends her days exploring the city and training to improve her skills.

Somehow, Kozue Amano (whenever I see this name I think “That’s what would happen if Godai’s girlfriend from Maison Ikkoku married Ginji from GetBackers!”) has achieved a story that feels extremely leisurely and yet which spans about ten months in two volumes. The most significant thing to happen is that, after six months, Akari graduates from apprentice status to journeyman. The rest of the time one gets chapters like “the president of Aria (a cat, by the way) feels useless, so he dresses up as his favorite superhero and returns a forgotten doll to a little girl” or “the gang takes a gondola ride to the floating island of Ukijima to watch fireworks.” This might sound dull, but it really isn’t.

One of the loveliest things about Aqua is its setting. Almost immediately, it seems as if one can feel the breeze, smell the air, and hear the lapping of the water. The anime must be gorgeous. One important thing Akari realizes is that even though life on Manhome is convenient and perfectly climate-controlled, she prefers the way things are done on Aqua, where every endeavor must first be preceded by a boat ride, where a crew of people maintains the giant cauldron that distributes heat across the land, and where the old-fashioned way of doing things evokes a feeling of nostalgia. One of the characters describes the planet as, “A treasure chest from long ago, filled to the brim with wonderful memories.”

I wasn’t sure whether I was actually supposed to laugh at some of the humor, or just sort of smile complacently at it. I think perhaps it’s the latter, because the overall feeling of the manga is a calming one. There are no spazzy characters here. No battles or drama or rivalries. There’s just a group of laid-back people enjoying where they happen to be at the moment, and there’s definitely value to be had in that.

Aqua was published in English by TOKYOPOP. It’s complete in two volumes, but the story continues in the twelve-volume series Aria. The change in title is due to a change in publisher in Japan; Aqua was serialized in Monthly Stencil for Square Enix, and Aria in Comic Blade for Mag Garden. Online sources indicate a variety of demographic classifications for Monthly Stencil, but I’ve gone with “shounen” for the purposes of this review, so as to match Aria.

I reviewed Aqua as part of the Manga Moveable Feast. Other contributions can be found here.

Tidbits: A TOKYOPOP Assortment

TOKYOPOP released a slew of books towards the end of 2010 and quite a few among them are from series I’m either reading or buying and hoarding (as is my wont). In a desperate effort to stay current, I’m tackling some of them in Tidbits format! Alice in the Country of Hearts is up first, with my take on volumes four and five, followed by volumes four through six of Happy Cafe, volume seven of Maid Sama!, volume three of Neko Ramen, and volume eight of Silver Diamond. Happy reading!

Alice in the Country of Hearts 4-5 by QuinRose and Soumei Hoshino: B
Reading Alice in the Country of Hearts is a lot like having a lollipop for a snack. It’s pleasant while you’re consuming it, but doesn’t provide any actual sustenance.

While things do happen to Alice in these two volumes, nothing appears to have lasting consequence. For instance, Julius the clock maker encourages Alice to move elsewhere—to a place where she won’t feel obliged to earn her keep—but Alice doesn’t want to leave! She explains this to Julius and, okay, she can stay.

Then Ace, the resident sociopath, decides that since proximity to Alice and her newfangled morals (she spends a fair amount of time convincing the people of Wonderland that their lives have value) hasn’t changed him like it has changed others, he ought to kill her. So he shows up at the clock tower with that intent, but Alice talks to him earnestly and he changes his mind. The same basic thing happens when she confronts the Hatter, Blood, for saying nasty things about her.

I still like Alice a lot, though, and was happy to see that the magical vial she was given at the start of the series finally makes another appearance. The gist of the game was that she had to fill this vial through interaction with others, and now it’s nearly full. The sixth and final volume in this series only recently came out in Japan, which means we’ve got quite a wait, but I’m interested to see whether it will manage to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Happy Cafe 4-6 by Kou Matsuzuki: B-
Happy Cafe—the story of a child-like high school student named Uru Takamura who works at a café with a pair of bishounen, surly Shindo and narcoleptic Ichiro—can sometimes be pretty boring. The episodic chapters frequently feature uninspiring plots (Uru plans a party for her bosses!) and stock shoujo situations (Uru’s class is doing a café for the school festival!). I’ve also lost count of how many guys seem to fancy Uru.

And yet, the series can also be quite charming. For every chapter where the plot is “our heroine tames a bratty kid,” there’s a good one that offers insight into the characters, like the story of why Shindo kept his surname (and kept his distance) when the proprietor of Café Bonheur took him in as a child or a glimpse at Ichiro when he was a suffocating model student just finding, through his job at the café, the means to bring happiness to others. The overall tone is light and warm, and though sometimes the humor fails to amuse—Uru is a bit too spazzy for my tastes—it’s also occasionally genuinely funny.

In short, Happy Cafe is like the manga equivalent of a sitcom: the setting and the characters don’t change very much, and sometimes the situations in which they find themselves are pretty silly, but it’s still enjoyable to spend short spans of time in their company.

Maid Sama! 7 by Hiro Fujiwara: B
No one could ever accuse Maid Sama! of being a great manga, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it anyway. In execution, it reminds me most of Ouran High School Host Club, in that each volume is predominantly made up of episodic hijinks but yet manages to include at least one genuinely romantic scene between its two leads. The subsequent squee causes readers to conveniently forget about anything less-than-stellar that might have come before.

I’ve fallen into this trap myself. I suffered through a rather dull chapter about Misaki’s incognito participation in a sweets-eating contest and a bonus chapter about Aoi, the insufferable cross-dressing nephew of Maid Latte’s manager, but all is forgiven because Misaki actually tells Usui that she likes him, in her own Misaki kind of way!

The fact that this takes place at a school festival, and that they smooch to the accompaniment of fireworks, is pretty clichéd. Perhaps I’m remiss for not skewering the series for its flaws, but it’s got me in its clutches now. I just don’t want to dwell on what it does wrong when the relationship between Misaki and Usui is so satisfying when they’re actually open about their feelings. Oh, I’m sure they’ll go back to bickering soon enough, but this moment of honesty will probably sustain me for a while.

I have a hard time recommending Maid Sama! because it really is merely adequate sometimes, but if one goes into it forewarned, I think one could be surprised by how enjoyable cliché can be.

Neko Ramen 3 by Kenji Sonishi: B+
Neko Ramen had me worried for a moment there. Its truly funny first volume easily cemented it as the best 4-koma manga I’ve ever read, but the second disappointed me with its dogged (har har) insistence on gags related to the wacky gimmicks feline proprietor, Taisho, comes up with to promote his ramen shop. I missed the cat-related humor.

That’s not to say that wacky gimmicks are wholly absent from this third volume—indeed, there are many, including the introduction of a hot towel service, complete with a sensitive “hot towel artist,” and “boomeramen,” where ramen is served to patrons on frisbees—but the humor feels more well-rounded. The cat humor is back (hooray!), and I giggled when a kitty is given responsibility over the hot towel service and when a group of kitties, caught up in World Cup frenzy, attempts to play soccer.

The cast is expanded, as well. Shige-chan, the thieving part-timer, is back and Sonishi-sensei manages to make me like him by virtue of a short feature in which he’s unable to resist sharing his lunch with various hungry animals. There’s also Tetsuo, a truck driver with an enthusiastic fondness for card games (the rules of which he hasn’t bothered to learn), and a pair of new characters—female otaku Watanabe and bishounen eating champion, Akkun. They bring with them all kinds of new opportunities for silliness.

All in all, this is a big improvement over the second volume and restores my faith in the series.

Silver Diamond 8 by Shiho Sugiura: B+
Although Rakan and friends set out for the imperial capital in the previous volume, they hardly make any progress toward that goal in this one. Instead, they come across a pair of giant, underground-dwelling snakes who have become cognizant of the fact that the land is dying and that they, too, will soon perish.

In true Silver Diamond fashion, however, these snakes are neither monstrous nor malevolent. Instead, they’re afraid of death and confused about what’s happening to them and about what they even were in the first place. The first snake swallows Rakan and friends and conveys them a short distance before dying and turning into a river. When the group later encounters a second snake who is freaking out about what his fate will be, Rakan is able to calm him by giving an answer. It’s all very sweet, far more sweet than one would think a volume devoted to the fates of giant snakes would ever be.

Along the way, Rakan wins the respect of still more villagers and does a lot of planting with the seeds he’s acquired so far. Additionally, the serpentine encounters remind Narushige of when, as a child, his cold-hearted mother once tried to sacrifice him to a similar creature. This actually reminds me a lot of Yuki Sohma in Fruits Basket, whose mother basically surrendered him for the advancement of her family. Like Yuki, Narushige is a reserved character who here resolves to try to forget his cruel mother and change through proximity to his new group of friends. No wonder he’s emerging as my favorite character.

Again, I admit that the pace of this series is leisurely, but it’s lovely and compelling all the same. I recommend it highly.

Review copies for the fourth volumes of Alice in the Country of Hearts and Happy Cafe provided by the publisher.

Eensy Weensy Monster 1 by Masami Tsuda: B

From the back cover:
Nanoha Satsuki, an average, plain-Jane high school student, comfortably spends her time in the shadow of her two beautiful, popular friends. But new guy Hazuki Tokiwa, with his snobbish, arrogant demeanor, has a way of getting under Nanoha’s skin, and releasing her inner monster!

Is this the beginning of an ugly relationship, or does Hazuki have his own hidden qualities?

Review:
I feel a little guilty that I’ve started another Masami Tsuda series rather than actually finish Kare Kano, but this one is so short and cute and I really will finish the other one this year, I swear!

Nanoha Satsuki is normally a calm, friendly girl. Even the attention paid to her childhood friends—princely Nobara, dubbed the “Lady Oscar” of the school, and genius Renge—doesn’t get her down. For some reason, though, a superficial boy named Hazuki and his snobby ways really get her goat. Nanoha attributes these mysterious feelings of anger to a “little parasite” and does her best to keep a lid on them, but one day she’s had enough and lays into Hazuki for being arrogant and narrow-minded.

Should it be a surprise to anyone that these two will eventually end up together? No, but how they get there is actually pretty interesting. After the outburst, Nanoha lives in fear of some kind of retribution, but her words have actually shocked Hazuki out of his reverie. Bratty vanity, as it turns out, is his little monster to overcome. He realizes he has no real friends or goals and comes to appreciate her hard-working qualities. In time, Nanoha is able to relax when he’s around, and by the end of the first volume—after the passage of several months—they’ve become friends.

Tsuda is very good at depicting the opening stages of a couple’s relationship—the first two volumes of Kare Kano are still my favorite part—and puts those skills to good use here. One technique she’s fond of is putting the girl’s perspective of events on the right-side page, and the boy’s on the left, and it works nicely here. For all of the moments when Nanoha catches Hazuki looking at her and thinks he’s plotting something dastardly or contemplating her lack of academic prowess, we see that he’s usually thinking things like, “If I want to be a better person, I should learn from someone like her.”

The overall tone is lighthearted, but one does come to like the leads a good deal by the end. Nanoha’s friends are quirky, too, and I’d like to know more about them, but if the couple gets together in the first two volumes and then we spend loads of time on their friends, I guess this would just turn into a clone of Tsuda’s more famous series.

As a final note, I must mention how much I love what Tsuda does with Hazuki’s fangirls. Immediately after being told off by Nanoha, Hazuki goes to them for sympathy. Instead, they all laugh in his face. “She sees right through you! I mean, we all like you, but we wouldn’t go out with you or anything.” Later, when Hazuki and Nanoha have gotten friendly, a few girls decide that they ought to bully her, but they’re rotten at it. At one point a cluster of girls follows Nanoha after school with the intention of threatening her, only to instinctively end up rallying to her defense when it looks like she’s been accosted by a creepy dude. Then they all find a new prince to swoon over. The end.

In the end, Eensy Weensy Monster is a totally cute and sweet shoujo romance. It probably won’t convert anyone to either the demographic or the genre, but it will provide an afternoon’s pleasant amusement to existing fans of both.