In case you were wondering…

In case you were wondering…

Sorry I haven’t been posting recently, guys! I have to take a bit of a break from blogging for now, but I hope to get back to posting sooner rather than later. I can’t give an exact time frame, but in the meanwhile I’ll be reading some new shojo manga, of course.

Strobe Edge, which I've just started reading. I have to say, it's addictive!
Strobe Edge, which I’ve just started reading. I have to say, it’s addictive!
Happily ever after for everyone! – beta couples in shojo manga

Happily ever after for everyone! – beta couples in shojo manga

One of the most common elements of shojo romantic-comedies is the presence of beta couples. Beta couples are secondary romantic relationships, which often serve as a contrast to the series’ main couple. Whether they’re the main character’s best friends or rival love interests who hook up after being rejected, the beta couple’s relationship is rarely developed or highlighted over the course of the series. I’ve found that the beta couple often is well established at the beginning of the series – they’re typically childhood sweethearts or they might get together right at the start of the manga – but either way, the fact that they’ve been together for so long make them great go-tos for relationship advice. They typically have little drama, and their presence in the series is typically used to contrast the main couple who struggles to get (or stay) together. And while beta couples may feel cliché (since the characters are often flat their relationships end up feeling just as boring, which was how I felt about the inclusion of Harumi and Tatsuya’s relationship in Mars), there are certainly interesting ones to be found. So I thought I’d take a look at a few examples.

When I think of beta couples, the first series that comes to mind is Marmalade Boy. Alongside Miki and Yuu, the series highlights the progressing romance between Miki’s best friend Meiko and her teacher/secret boyfriend Namura, as well as losing love interests Ginta and Arimi. Unlike many series, however, when Marmalade Boy begins focusing on Ginta’s new feelings for Arimi or Meiko’s heartache over her and Namura’s breakup, it doesn’t feel forced. This is because while most series will only start focusing on the protagonist’s best friends after the main couple has gotten together officially (such as Love*Com), Marmalade Boy does a great job of balancing all of it’s romantic storylines at the same time. I think another reason I like Marmalade Boy‘s beta couples better than most series is because I wasn’t particularly moved by Miki and Yuu’s romance. I didn’t care much for main character Miki, which would normally prevent me from getting extremely attached to a series. But because there were so many other characters and romantic pairings for me to choose from, the series stands out, and Ginta and Arimi became my favorite romance in the series.

Special A Akira and TadashiOther series have tried to balance the main couple’s romance while developing their friends’ romantic entanglements. One example is Special A, which not long after establishing Kei’s romantic feelings for protagonist Hikari also begins to develop Akira’s relationship with her longtime friend Tadashi, by showing that behind her constant punching of the goofy SA member lies romantic affection. Later, when Akira and Tadashi get together, fellow SA member Megumi asks out Yahiro, who is also in love with Akira, in order to prevent him from interfering with the new couple. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Megumi’s feelings to turn into real affection. But after finishing Special A, I was bothered a bit by the series falling into the trap of pairing almost all of it’s main cast with someone else. It’s extremely cliché, suggests that the only way a person can be happy is if they are in a romantic relationship, and is highly unrealistic. After all, how often does it happen that your entire group of friends happens to have a significant other?

Paradise Kiss Arashi and MiwakoThen there are the series that present their beta couples so uniquely it’s difficult to label them as such. The josei manga Paradise Kiss immediately presents childhood sweethearts Miwako and Arashi. At first, the two seem mismatched – he looks like a tough rocker and she’s a sweet lolita – but Yukari sees that the two go well together. However, over the course of the series the couple is shown facing their own problems when their former friend Hiroyuki Tokumori, who once had a crush on Miwako, comes back into the picture. But rather than being played for empty drama, the series shows that the couple’s problem isn’t rival love interests but rather Arashi’s jealousy, which was strong enough that it caused him to ask Miwako to cut off her friendship with Hiro. And unlike many other beta couples, whose relationships are stable enough that other characters constantly ask them for romantic advice, Miwako is often the one who turns to Yukari for advice or comfort when things get shaky between her and Arashi. Unlike so many beta couples, there are genuine emotions behind Arashi and Miwako’s relationship, which makes the inclusion of their story feel worthwhile.

Hana Yori Dango has two examples: Rui and his childhood crush Shizuka, and Tsukushi’s best friend Yuki’s crush on F4 member Sojiro. When Rui chose to follow Shizuka to France after she decided to become a lawyer, I thought she’d fall for him and their relationship would work out. But when Rui returns to Japan it’s clear that things weren’t working between the two of them, and I was somewhat surprised that the two of them never got back together. Even more surprising was that Yuki’s feelings for Sojiro also remain unrequited. Usually in manga when a girl has unrequited feelings for a guy but decides to pursue him anyway he will end up falling for her, even if he can’t stand her in the beginning of the series (like Naoki in Itazura na Kiss. Note also that there is a double standard: if a girl in shojo manga has a creepy suitor she will never give him the time of day). But Sojiro doesn’t change his mind about good-girl Yuki nor will he change his philandering ways – yet rather than feeling discouraged Yuki decides to appreciate her feelings for him, and the two become better friends. I liked that not all of the romantic pairings in Hana Yori Dango had happy endings, and that most of the cast remained single up to the series’ finale. And because there are so many manga that will take the same combination of characters (like pairing a cheerful girl with a grumpy guy) and develop several couples with those exact same archetypes, I really love when each of the couples presented in a series feel distinctly different from one another. It makes sense that beta couples work best when they’re presence isn’t forced into the storyline and include interesting characters – because rather than detracting from a story they add to it.

From Far Away volumes 1-14

From Far Away volumes 1-14

There are many spoilers in this review, so please read with caution!

From Far Away - Izark and NorikoOne of my favorite types of shojo series tell stories about girls who get sucked into other worlds. From Fushigi Yugi to Red River, these stories combine action, drama, fantasy, and romance into multilayered epics that are hard to forget. One of the more popular series of this type is decidely less known here in the U.S: Kanata Kara, also known as From Far Away. Noriko Tachiki is a 14-year-old girl who is transported to another world after a terrorist bombing. She immediately is discovered by Izark, a handsome man who possesses extreme physical strength, which he uses to fight monsters that are about to attack Noriko. Inevitably, he becomes the young girl’s protector. Noriko, who can’t speak or understand the language of the world and stands out like a sore thumb because of her clothing, finds herself helpless, slowly becoming more competent over the course of the series. But as Noriko learns the language and makes new friends, she soon learns that her meeting with Izark may have been more than just a mere coincidence.

One thing I really like about From Far Away is that it’s very clear Kyoko Hikawa knew exactly where she wanted to go over the course of the 14-volume series. Very early on in the manga, it becomes known that Noriko is “The Awakening,” a being thought to be an ill-omen because it portends the arrival of the all-powerful sky demon. She learns that many of the highest political figures have gone missing or have been removed from office and replaced with corrupt officials, all who would love to capture Noriko so they can use the power of the sky demon to their benefit. But as it turns out, Izark is the sky demon, and the reason he was where Noriko was upon her arrival in his world is because he knew the Awakening would come on that fateful day. One of my favorite scenes in the series is when Izark recollects their first encounter – he had planned to kill the Awakening, but when he found a tiny, helpless girl he couldn’t help but want to save her.  Rather than in many of these types of series, where it feels as though the girl who gets sucked into a strange land could have been practically anyone, it’s almost as if Noriko had to be the Awakening in order for Izark’s destiny to change shape. While I’ve heard people dismiss Noriko because she is physically weak, I was actually quite impressed with her character. She’s not only kindhearted but extremely logical – realizing that she needs to improve her situation as quickly as possible so she can be less of a burden on Izark, she takes it upon herself to learn the language and culture, and she rarely whines or falls into bouts of self-pity. And she’s extremely adorable.

From Far Away Izark and NorikoInevitably, a romance develops between the two, and rather than being played for melodrama their relationship grows quite tenderly. At one point Izark leaves Noriko with Gaya, a trusted friend of his who is sort of a mother figure, as well as a warrior from a rebel clan known as the Grey Bird tribe. Both realize they miss one another, and Izark finds that he can’t part with Noriko as he’d planned to. Being with Noriko both reminds him and heals him of his wounds as an outsider;living on his own and ostracized by his family because he is the sky demon. Izark is afraid that the more he uses his powers the less he will be able to control them, until he finally turns into the sky demon for good. In volume five, Noriko sees his transformed self for the first time in battle, yet instead of being afraid she tells him she doesn’t care who he is and that she loves him. He’s touched by her acceptance of him, and although he is initially reluctant to admit his love for her he eventually becomes very affectionate, teasing her and hugging her when he once could barely even laugh or smile. It is Noriko’s positive spirit that eventually helps Izark discover that there is something else inside him alongside the sky demon – a source of hope and strength which he can use to defeat the sky demon within him.

The side characters in From Far Away are fun, too, even if they aren’t all that memorable. Gaya has a tough attitude yet is kind, while hot-headed warrior Banadam has an unrequited crush on Noriko. Later in the series the couple encounter a mother and daughter, who along with the other townspeople try to figure out their true identities (the funnest guess is that Noriko is a princess who ran away to be with Izark, her knight). Izark and Noriko gain plenty of enemies as well, from Keimos, a warrior who is obsessed with defeating Izark because he is the first person to ever defeat him in battle, and Rachef, whose desire for anarchy stems from the very human fear of wanting to be accepted. However, I had a bit of a difficult time keeping straight all of the characters, who weave in and out of the story, and I had a hard time getting attached to anyone besides Izark and Noriko. And because the author had clearly planned the ending of the manga from the beginning, the story can be a bit difficult to follow. Characters have cryptic conversations, mentioning chimos (creatures used for teleportation) and moonstones (which are used to keep evil spirits out and amplify one’s power) without describing what these things are – and it isn’t until much later that they are explained. From Far Away is the best ‘girl falls into another world’ story really depends on what the reader is looking for in such a story. From Far Away has many strengths, including great action sequences and a fantastical setting filled with exotic creatures. But for those looking for a grand drama or a sweeping love story, I would suggest Red River over this series because it’s so based on character interaction. Yet From Far Away is not without the human touch. The ideal of the series is encompassed wonderfully in one scene, when enemy Doros decides to help Noriko out simply because she says thank you to him. From Far Away sends such positive messages – such as how powerful kindness is or that even little actions can result in big changes – without ever feeling saccharine. So while From Far Away may not be my favorite series in the genre, I still enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it because it does so many things so right.

All I want for Christmas is you

All I want for Christmas is you

In the world of shojo manga, Christmas can only mean one thing: romance! Whether a couple goes on a special Christmas Eve date, or the heroine gets a glimpse of her crush at a Christmas party, high emotions are a given during the holiday season. Let’s see how Christmas is celebrated…

Kimi ni Todoke - ChristmasKimi ni Todoke style!

Our introverted heroine Sawako is invited to a Christmas party with her friends Yano and Chizu, as well as her crush Kazehaya. Yet just as Sawako tries to tell her parents about the party, they become emotional because Sawako was supposed to be born on Christmas, and she decides not to go. On Christmas Eve, Sawako’s dad mistakes a hat she knitted for Kazehaya as his Christmas gift. Yet not all hope is lost: when Kazehaya calls her from the party, Sawako’s parents realize she wants to be with her friends and give her their Christmas present: a cellphone. Sawako makes it to the party just as it’s ending, where she and Kazehaya exchange gifts.

Gifts exchanged: Kazehaya gives Sawako a pretty cellphone strap, a perfect present for her new phone. Sawako ends up giving Kazehaya her dad’s gift – a belly warmer! Even though Sawako is embarassed, Kazehaya is elated. After all, it’s the thought that counts.

  • Lovely Complex style!

Otani, in a mad rush to cram for his college entrance exams, begins seeing his girlfriend Risa less and less. When Risa’s coworker starts developing feelings for her, a jealous Otani breaks things off with Risa, who is left heartbroken. At a Christmas party with her coworkers, Risa realizes she can’t enjoy herself without Otani, and she decides to go to his house. But before she can get there she bumps into Otani, who also ran to see her because he can’t concentrate on his studies. The two make up, and celebrate with a Christmas kiss.

Gifts exchanged: Neither had time to shop for gifts, but Risa receives the best present she could have ever asked for – Otani tells her he loves her more than he could have ever realized. All together now: awwww.

  • Itazura na Kiss style!

Even though the Irie family is going to a fancy Christmas party at a hotel, Kotoko decides to spend Christmas with her two best friends, whose boyfriends are both busy on the day. But at the last minute both her friends cancel, and Kotoko is all alone on Christmas Eve. However, Kotoko’s crush Naoki happens to see Kotoko’s friend and realizes she must be home alone, and he returns to spend the holiday alone with her (with fried chicken and a cake).

Gifts exchanged: Kotoko gives Naoki a watch, but he doesn’t get her anything. That’s alright with her though – she got to spend Christmas with her beloved Naoki!

  • High School Debut style!

In her typical gung-ho attitude, Haruna decides to plan the perfect Christmas date with her new boyfriend Yoh. They go to Santa-land (which is full of kids) then to a Christmas fair (which is full of old people), but they still have fun all the same. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when they go to dinner: the staff, who are pissed about having to work on Christmas Eve, play a game with the customers to show whether they have kissed anyone or not. Haruna’s answer shows she hasn’t but Yoh’s shows that he has, and Haruna runs away, embarassed. But when Yoh catches up to her they kiss, and he promises never to kiss another girl again.

Gifts exchanged: Haruna gives Yoh a wallet she spotted him eyeing, while Yoh gives Haruna a scarf because she’s always running around in the cold with clothes that are too thin. Both gifts are extremely considerate, but I have to say Haruna was probably happier with the kiss, considering the fact that she could barely look at or speak to Yoh without freaking out and blushing afterwards.

Gakuen Alice - Christmas partyGakuen Alice style!

As in many other shojo manga, Alice Academy hosts a Christmas party where the girls where cute Santa costumes. Mikan tries to make Yoichi, a little boy close to class-troublemaker Natsume, happy by having Bear (who can walk and gets quite grumpy) play with him. Luka, Natsume’s best friend, thanks Mikan for making Yoichi happy by kissing her on the cheek. At first Mikan is shocked but that doesn’t last for long: when she and Natsume dance they end up falling and accidentally kissing each other in front of the whole school! Mikan freaks out and leaves the party, only to end up arguing with Natsume that it wasn’t a ‘real kiss’ by saying their lips barely touched. Natsume puts an end to the argument by kissing her for real, and the Christmas party comes to an end.

Gifts exchanged: Three kisses. I’m starting to sense a theme here…

Christmas in Japan may be more about romance than the typically family-oriented holiday is here in the west, but the true spirit of Christmas is still retained. As these shojo Christmas stories show, it’s not what you get for Christmas that matters most – it’s who you spend it with.

One hit wonders…in America (take two)

One hit wonders…in America (take two)

When I wrote my last list of great shojo manga authors who have only had one work brought to North America, I knew the list was incomplete. So many of my favorite authors have been largely ignored here that I trimmed my list, and thus I’ve decided to take a look at a few other artists whose catalogues remain mostly in Japan.

Yoko Kamio

Cat Street groupI didn’t think it was possible for me to love any series more than Kodocha or Nana until I read Boys Over Flowers. Kamio knows better than anyone how to create melodrama that’s not annoying to read, and most importantly, how to write a damn good love triangle. Many fans of hers would love to see 2004’s Cat Street licensed, a series about an actress who freezes up on stage and ends up enrolling in a school for “stray cats” – people who haven’t found their place or purpose yet. Like Boys Over Flowers before it, Cat Street was adapted into a live-action drama in 2008, proving that Kamio’s popularity is more than just a fad. As for me, I’m personally interested in Kamio’s later series Tora to Ookami, which is about a girl who ends up in a love triangle with two college boys, all while trying to save her family restaurant from ending up in the hands of a rich corporation!  I doubt I’ll find any other couple in manga who I adore as much as Tsukushi and Tsukasa, but if anyone can do it, Kamio can.

Odds of it being licensed: 30 percent. I’ve seen numerous requests for Cat Street to be licensed, but sadly Viz seems to sitting on licenses of shojo series that aren’t fantasies or straight up romantic comedies.

Chie Shinohara

Shinohara’s 28 volume series Red River is a wonderful epic in which a 15-year-old girl gets transported to ancient Anatolia. But so far, Red River is the only work out of Shinohara’s long manga career to make it to American shores. Shinohara is one of few shojo artists to have won the Shogakukan Manga Award more than once – her first win was in 1987 for Yami no Purple Eye, a series about a girl who begins turning into a leopard. Of all her series, however, I’m most interested in Ao no Fuin, a series about a high school girl who finds out she is the reincarnation of the demon queens Seiryu, and is falling in love with reincarnation of Byakko, the white tiger destined to kill her. I’ve really liked the legend of the Four Gods ever since I first encountered it in Fushigi Yugi, and I’m sure a tale of starcrossed lovers would be nothing but heartracing in Shinohara’s very capable hands.

Odds it’ll be licensed: 20 percent. At 11 volumes, Ao no Fuin‘s not ridiculously long, but it is considerably older than the majority of the manga being licensed today (the series started in 1991). And most importantly, Shinohara’s more mature approach to storytelling seems to be largely ignored by North American licensors, which is really a shame.

Kazune Kawahara

I consider High School Debut much better than it really should be. It’s an average romantic-comedy, yet it feels refreshing thanks to fun lead characters and decidely avoiding common shojo tropes. But what surprised me most about High School Debut was finding out that it’s author had been in the manga industry for quite some time. Along with Sensei!, a 20 volume shojo series featuring a student-teacher romance, I’ve heard good things about Aozora Yell, which features a girl who wants to join the baseball team’s band and play bass in the championships despite the fact that she’s no good at music. Kawahara has a way with comedy, and she’s good at writing determined, cheerful girls, which is enough to make me want to read more of her works.

Odds it’ll be licensed: 50 percent. Kawahara’s works are contemporary enough that I’d say they still have a chance at being licensed, especially since High School Debut is a fairly prominent title within the Shojo Beat lineup.

Wataru Yoshizumi

She’s technically a two-hit wonder since both Marmalade Boy and Ultramanic have been licensed in the States, but I still would love to read some of Yoshizumi’s many works that haven’t been brought here. I’ve always been curious about her older series Handsome na Kanojo, which is about a young girl who is aspiring to be an actress meeting and falling for a boy who wants to be a director. But upon researching her works, even her more recent series such as Chitose, Etc., seem very interesting. Chitose follows a girl from Okinawa who meets a boy from Tokyo. They hit it off and he even kisses her, but when she visits him in Tokyo she finds out he has a girlfriend! Yoshizumi is great at creating quintessential shojo drama and intriguing romance even out of clichéd situations, so I know that if more of her works were brought here I’d be in for a good time.

Odds it’ll be licensed: 35 percent. Yoshizumi’s been out of the limelight in America for awhile now, and while the chances of her older series being licensed are fairly slim, I’d still say her contemporary series like the still-running Chitose, Etc. have a shot of being picked up.

I’m sure there are even more authors whose works being unavailable in English makes me (among many others) groan. If there are any works you’d love to see licensed by authors you’re already familiar with, share your thoughts guys!

The pseudo-feminist shojo lead

The pseudo-feminist shojo lead

If there’s one gripe that fans have with shojo manga, it’s the pervasiveness of weak female leads. Most readers are turned off by female protagonists who are romance-obsessed, average in looks and intelligence, and who have a tendency to be clumsy or cry a lot. In recent years, many shojo romance manga have made attempts to correct the trend of boy-crazy, passive heroines by replacing them with more assertive, independent females who have largely been embraced by the fandom. Characters such as Ouran High School Host Club‘s Haruhi and Maid-sama‘s Misaki are appreciated because of their no-nonsense attitudes, intelligence, and most of all, the fact that they are not interested in romance whatsoever. Yet, I seem to feel differently about these characters than most fans do. While characters like Haruhi and Misaki, along with Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun‘s Shizuku are considered strong female leads, they are actually more bothersome to me than their boy-crazy counterparts. One of the most common traits about this type of character is that they are often emotionally detached. Thus, not only is this the reason they’ve never had romantic feelings, but it also results in these female characters ‘going with the flow’ of their surroundings because they don’t care either way. Thus, their indifference leads them to be ‘swept off their feet’ by the guy who pursues them, rendering them passive despite their supposed ‘strength.’

Of course, boy-crazy shojo leads often end up being swept off their feet too – but since they’re interested in love and getting a boyfriend, it’s more problematic in my opinion when it happens to a ‘pseudo-feminist’ shojo lead because it’s practically against her will. But there are other problematic aspects of this type of character that disturb me even more. While so many people find the typical no-nonsense, ‘strong’ female character to be a refreshing change, I actually find these characters to be boring. I’ve written before about my problems with Haruhi’s character – that her blasé attitude toward the people and events around her made me indifferent to her character, and thus I ended up more interested in the male characters in the series just as I would have if she were a more stereotypical plain shojo lead. And while I wouldn’t call Maid-sama‘s Misaki ‘boring,’ she still somewhat annoys me because of the way the series stuffs the fact that Misaki is perfect at everything down the audience’s throats, resulting in Misaki’s strength feeling forced. Her misandry also makes her come across as ‘bitchy,’ which is bothersome because of media’s tendency to turn strong women into bitches.

And then there’s Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun‘s Shizuku. Shizuku’s probably the most extreme example of the independent shojo lead – she is only focused on studying, has no close friends, and has a brutually honest tongue. Many fans like Shizuku because she voices her honest opinions about the people around her. But something about Shizuku feels extremely robotic to me. While many fans admire the fact that Shizuku places so much importance in her schoolwork, it’s troublesome to me that when female characters are smart they are often social outcasts, as though it’s impossible for smart women to make friends on their own. Even after Shizuku tells Haru she loves him, I feel little of her emotional investment in Haru or her relationship with him. When she says that Haru has changed her world, I’m left unconvinced because Haru hadn’t been in Shizuku’s life for very long, and he had done little but be a nuisance towards her. I almost felt like she only said this line because the author ‘programmed’ her to; rather than out of genuine character development. And while fans admire Shizuku for standing up to Haru (such as when Haru tells her not to see his brother anymore and she tells him no), her motivations for doing so are left unclear, making her character feel undeveloped and unrealistic in my opinion. Thus, Shizuku’s lack of personal investment in anything leaves me uninterested in becoming invested in her.

Yet there are other harsh shojo leads in the vein of Shizuku who feel genuine, and have grabbed my attention. The best example is Maria from A Devil and Her Love Song, a beautiful and intelligent transfer student who has a tendency to call people out on the kind façades they put on. While Maria says things that are truly cutting (the first thing she says to her new classmates is that she got kicked out of her previous school for beating up a teacher), she feels like a fully-dimensional character because there are tinges of sorrow to her. No matter how indifferent or cruel Maria may appear to be on the surface, it’s made clear that she wants to have friends and dislikes herself. It’s clear that she is trying to become a better person by learning to love even the people who scorn her, which has endeared her to me. More than focusing on romance, Maria’s personal struggles are what’s most important so far in A Devil and Her Love Song, which sets her apart from Shizuku. Rather than treating her bluntness as a sign of strength, Maria’s callousness is both her greatest blessing and curse, which allows her to feel more well-rounded. And while I know that there will be many fans who disagree with me for arguing that ‘no-nonsense’ characters like Haruhi and Shizuku are dull or passive, I think it’s important to question why a female character who is isn’t interested in romance or who is ‘aggressive’ should automatically be labeled strong.

The flow of time in shojo manga

The flow of time in shojo manga

After marrying Naoki, Kotoko struggles (but ultimately succeeds) in becoming a nurse.

There are many things shojo manga does extremely well. Crafting multi-layered characters, engrossing romances, and addictive melodrama are all staples of the best shojo on the market today. But one element that is often overlooked that stands out to me is the way shojo subtly handles the passage of time. While many shojo series seem to be stuck in the golden years of high school, several of my favorite manga take place over many years of the protagonists’ lives. This allows us to get an all-too rare glimpse at the adult phases of life – careers, marriage, and the start of a family. One of the very things I love most about Itazura na Kiss is how much time passed over the course of the series. At the start of Naoki and Kotoko’s rocky relationship, both charcaters are seniors in high school. They quickly enter college and are faced with important life decisions – especially Naoki, who despite his father’s expectations for him to take over his toy company, starts to dream of becoming a doctor. But I think watching Kotoko’s career path is even more fulfilling – because for so long in the series her attentions are only focused on Naoki. When Kotoko fails to graduate on time and considers dropping out of school, Naoki scolds her for shirking her responsibilities and never giving any serious consideration to her future, she ultimately decides to become a nurse because her dream is to help Naoki. Through the passage of time we can see the characters mature and not only overcome their foibles, but also learn how to accept responsibility.

Photos and Ann’s iconic hourglass shows the importance of the passage of time throughout the series.

One series in which the passage of time, especially the passing of the seasons, is especially important is Sand Chronicles. The series follows main character Ann from ages 12-26, and each chapter is given a title using the Ann’s age and what season it is (e.g.: Winter, Age 18: First Star). The seasons add to the mood and forbode important events, such as the death of Ann’s mother during the snowy winter or the end of Ann and Fuji’s relationship amidst the late fall trees. But the passage of time is most clearly represented through Ann’s hourglass, which was given to her by her mother at the beginning of the series. After her mother commits suicide, Ann breaks the hourglass, but it returns to her hands when Daigo buys her a new one because she shouldn’t ever let go of the things that are most important to her. On that day, Ann makes a wish: that she and Daigo will be together for the rest of their lives. But when Ann’s depression from her mother’s death begins to consume her, she breaks things off with Daigo and puts the hourglass away – a symbol for Ann being stuck in time. Their decision to live by the sand once Ann overcomes her depression and reconciles with Daigo is meaningful because it shows that time has started for her once more.

But series don’t need to take place over years and years to feel the passage of time. One series that makes use of a detailed account of time is Red River by Chie Shinohara. In Red River, 15-year-old Yuri Suzuki is sucked into 14th Century Anatolia. Shinohara intergrates real-life historical figures such as Kail Mursili, prince of the Hittites, and Egypt’s Nefertiti. Historically-accurate events such as the death of Zannanza (Kail’s brother and a prince of the Hittites, who became pharaoh of Egypt but was killed before he could take the throne) give me great respect for the series. But the series in which the flow of time feels the most authentic is without a doubt Nana. Cell phone conversations are given exact dates and times, enveloping the series within the real world.  Beginning at volume twelve, the series occassionally flash-forwards several years into the future, giving the audience clues of what will happen during the present. We Were There also uses this technique after it’s main couple goes their separate ways, and the audience is thrust five years into the future to figure out little by little what happened to each character. Thus, there are many interesting ways to use the passage of time within a series to make it feel unique. Overall, I think the main reason I have such a fondness for series which take place over a long portion of the cast’s lives is because it allows the audience to grow even more attached to the characters and their personal stories. Watching characters grow over a specified period of time makes them feel real, as though their stories are taking place somewhere else right as we speak.

Power and gender in Kamisama Kiss

Power and gender in Kamisama Kiss

There are many problematic power dynamics presented in shojo anime and manga. Too many series feature weak, passive girls in romantic relationships with jerky or outright abusive boyfriends, often placing female characters in a subservient role. The currently-running Kamisama Kiss anime and manga has impressed many fans with it’s willful heroine Nanami, who becomes a kami (deity) to a local shrine after her dad leaves her (and his debts) behind. On the surface, Kamisama Kiss subverts the traditional power dynamics intertwined with gender relations by featuring Nanami becoming the ‘master’ to her shinishi (a creature who is controlled by a kami) Tomoe. I’d like to further explore in which ways the series subverts and reinforces stereotypical gender relations –  in many cases, at the same time.

Many bloggers pointed out that right from the start, Kamisama Kiss subverts traditional shojo cliches by having Nanami steal a kiss from Tomoe, while in most series it is the female protagonist who typically has a kiss stolen from her. But as I have mentioned before, it’s interesting that when a female character initiates a kiss, her intentions are not romantic or sexual – instead, she kisses Tomoe in order for him to become her shinishi and guardian. Thus, because the kiss was not romantic in it’s nature, Nanami’s ‘purity’ is upheld. And although Nanami is put in a position of power as kami of the shrine, it is interesting that she becomes the kami of love and relationships, which has always been associated more with women.  Another way in which traditional gender roles are upheld is that Tomoe, as a fox yokai who is far more powerful than Nanami, becomes her protector. The reason Nanami kisses Tomoe and enters the shinishi contract in the first place is because she is being attacked by a yokai who steals the souls of humans and needs him to fend off the monster. And as a newcomer to the shrine, Nanami relies on Tomoe for everything from learning how to use ofuda (strips of paper used to write spells) to catching the bus on time. Tomoe himself, though a wild fox yokai, is very much like most ‘bad boy’ love interests in shojo manga: he has a mysterious past and can be cruel to Nanami (often to teach her a lesson). In these ways, stereoypical gender representations are reinforced.

However, it’s been pointed out that while on the surface Tomoe may rescue Nanami, ultimately Nanami always ends up saving herself, thus neutralizing Tomoe’s status as her protector and setting Nanami apart from the typical ‘damsel in distress.’ For example, in volume six, when Nanami is attacked by a spider yokai at school Tomoe is the one who kills the monster. However, the school becomes thick with miasma from the yokai, and Nanami is ultimately the one who is able to purify the monster despite Tomoe’s stronger powers.  There are also several instances where Nanami ends up saving Tomoe. In volume four, Tomoe gets kidnapped by a sea yokai and is saved by Nanami when she returns to the past to retrieve the eye Tomoe stole from him. Thus, Tomoe and Nanami are constantly switching positions in their power dynamic. However,  as the series progresses, Nanami finds herself in situations where she can’t rescue herself more often, and ends up relying more on Tomoe (such as when Nanami is sent to the Land of the Dead in volume eight). While this may seem to suggest that the series is regressing to traditional gender dynamics, I am not bothered because much has been done to show that Nanami always makes an effort to get herself out of sticky situations, which is more than can be said for the stereotypical passive female character. And more importantly, the emphasis of the series is clearly to show that Nanami and Tomoe are strongest when they work together. As a kami, Nanami is becoming more confident in her powers, while Tomoe is beginning to realize that humans aren’t as weak as he thought they are. Because of her influence in his life, the shrine feels warmer, and Tomoe is slowly learning to trust Nanami not to abandon him as his previous master Mikage did once before.

In terms of the growing romance between Nanami and Tomoe, however, is where the ever-changing power dynamics must come into question. By having Nanami kiss Tomoe first, it would seem as though Nanami has the upper-hand in their relationship. But I would argue that Kamisama Kiss upholds traditional gender relations in all areas concerning romance. Nanami is the first to realize she loves Tomoe, and when she hypothetically asks what he would do if she fell for him, Tomoe tells her that he “will not fall in love with a human.” Nanami is heartbroken, and at this point any romantic relationship between the two of them is completely in Tomoe’s hands. Kurama, a tengu, warns Tomoe that Nanami may fall for him simply because she’s a young woman, which perpetuates stereotypes about teenage girls being shallow and boy-crazy. And when the shinishi contract between Tomoe and Nanami is broken in volume eight after he rescues her from the Land of the Dead, it is up to Tomoe, not Nanami, to reinitiate it. He tells her not to automatically assume that he’ll be her shinishi again, and he uses the time to wonder why he can’t stop thinking about Nanami even though their contract has been cut off. And while Nanami had no fears in forcing a kiss from Tomoe at the beginning of the series, now that she has romantic feelings for him she doesn’t do anything, upholding traditional gender roles that only males should be romantic agressors, especially in physical terms. It is Tomoe who kisses Nanami in her sleep in order to become her shinishi again, undermining the atypical power dynamic praised at the series’ start. But is this enough to ruin the series for me? Not at all – I’ve enjoyed series with far more problematic gender roles, and I still can admire Nanami for being cheerful and hardworking without coming across as annoying. More importantly, my interest in the series has grown now that we’re beginning to learn more about Tomoe’s past. Yet while the decision to have Tomoe become the romantic initiator may be chalked up as a female fantasy it is important not dismiss this, and instead think about how deeply-embedded such a female fantasy is in our society and why. So while Kamisama Kiss may subvert traditional gender dynamics in some ways, in other ways it holds on tight.

Shojo around the blogosphere

Shojo around the blogosphere

Hey guys, I just wanted to let you know of a few recent shojo-inspired pieces around the blogosphere. First is part one of a comic entitled “Shojo Reactions,” a very relatable story about what it’s like reading shojo manga! The piece was drawn and written by my friend Lucretia, and I hope you guys like it!

Next we have “I’ll kiss you and you’ll fall in love with me – Ramblings on Shoujo,” a conversation between Foxy Lady Ayame and myself over at the beautiful world. We discuss the presence of the ‘stolen kiss’ in shojo anime and manga, and how it is often problematic. Our conversation was inspired by a great post over at Tokyo Jupiter comparing kisses in the first episodes of three currently airing shojo series.

I hope you guys enjoy these pieces!

The art of the matter

The art of the matter

Normally, I don’t care much about whether a series has great art or not. I’ve written before that it bothers me when fans ignore great series because they have unique or ‘ugly’ artstyles. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate good art, and while shojo art often gets criticized for being ‘simple’ and that it ‘all looks alike,’ I find myself drawn to the textbook shojo aesthetic, which often features frills, flowers, pretty girls and even prettier boys.  In particular, there are some artists whose style I find myself drawn to.  Here are some of the shojo artists whose art I really love:

Wataru Yoshizumi: Some people might argue that Wataru Yoshizumi’s art is textbook shojo. And while I wouldn’t disagree, I feel that Yoshizumi does textbook shojo better than anyone else. I love her character designs – her boys are handsome, while her girls are feminine with large eyes yet still not sugary to the level of Arina Tanemura’s characters. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to the basics.

Ai Yazawa: Ai Yazawa is one of a few shojo/josei artists (along with Chika Umino and Moyocco Anno) whose style I consider to be extremely distinct. Her character designs are edgy yet realistic, featuring smaller eyes and thicker lips than the average shojo characters. Her costumes are inspired by real-life designers such as Vivienne Westwood, so her characters are always fashionable. But where Yazawa really shines is her use of facial expressions. Yazawa is amazing at being able to create drama through closeups and the way she frames important scenes. Thus, Yazawa’s storytelling is layered – rather than just relying on multifaceted characters and great dialogue, the story’s emotional punch lies just as much within it’s art.

CLAMP: I love CLAMP’s artwork, but only for a few specific series. I’m not a fan of the more angular art style shown in their older works (such as Clover), nor of their latest lanky character designs where even young characters appear to be six feet tall (which is especially prevalant in Tsubasa). However, I adore CLAMP’s character designs for Cardcaptor Sakura and Chobits, which are adorable without feeling overly saccharine, and just generally very feminine. I also love their detailed costumes, from Sakura’s battle costumes in CCS to Yuko’s kimonos in xxxHolic. But the main reason I know I’m a fan of CLAMP’s artwork is because a picture of Chi will pull me in every time, despite the fact that I don’t even like Chobits.

Yuuki Obata: At first glance, Yuuki Obata’s artwork for We Were There seems pretty straightforward. She uses bubbles, sparkles, flowers – all staple elements of the shojo aesthetic. But her character designs only appear to be typical on the surface – on closer inspection they’re rounder than the average shojo characters, and Obata depicts her characters aging skillfully and realistically. But more than for having a distinct style like Ai Yazawa or being amazingly detailed like CLAMP, I believe Obata evokes a certain warmth from her artwork that makes me go ‘awww’ every time I see it.

Yuu Watase: Yuu Watase is the queen of the recycled character design. Tamahome, Night, and Uruki (among many others) are basically the same design over and over again. So why did I put her on this list? Because it’s a damn good character design. No one knows how to draw a pretty boy quite like Watase does, and in many ways the people who accuse Watase of copying her own designs are ignoring the fact that this is true for many other manga artists as well (coughArina Tanemuracough).

There are many other shojo manga artists whose style I really like. I love Kyosuke Motomi’s character designs – they’re sharp and attractive and almost feel as though they walked out of a shonen manga. And I’ve always liked the pretty boys from Vampire Knight, despite the fact that I don’t care much for the series itself. There are even some shojo authors whose works I haven’t read but I find their art extremely addictive, such as Io Sakisaka. So are there any shojo artists whose character designs or costumes you can’t get enough of? Share your thoughts, guys!