Cover-to-Cover: We Were There

Cover-to-Cover: We Were There

Cover-to-Cover is a column where I’ll choose my favorite cover from a particular series. This time around I’ll be doing one of my favorite manga, We Were There. It took me awhile to get used to We Were There‘s artwork. At first, I thought it was unremarkable but didn’t care because I loved the series so much. Then upon coming across some of Yuki Obata’s lovely color pictures for the series, I began to fall in love with the manga’s art. So choosing a favorite cover for this series is a bit difficult because so many of the covers have such a joyous, dreamy feel to them. The first cover that stands out to me is volume four’s. I love that Nanami and Yano are huddled so close together in the snow; there’s a level of intimacy in this cover that is unmatched. Volume eight‘s cover contains what is probably my favorite moment in the series, Nanami standing on the train platform as he heads for Tokyo with his mother. Volume 11 features the couple right before a kiss, so it definitely wins in the romantic category. And as for the most daring cover, I’d have to say that belongs to volume 12, since it contains a simple picture of fireworks with no characters at all.  But if I have to choose just one cover, I think I’ll go with volume 13.

I’m sensing a theme here, because my last Cover-to-Cover pick Sand Chronicles also prominently featured beautiful autumn leaves. Nanami and Yano are adorably smiling – their smiles are almost cheesy, which I think works really well since Yano and Nanami at one point joke that they are a cheesy couple. I think this cover stands out to me because it’s brightly-colored and they just look so happy together, which is a huge contrast to the somber tone of the series at this point. Yano and Nanami see each other for the first time since he moved to Tokyo five years earlier, and he casually dismisses her (although it’s obvious he’s struggling with his feelings more than he lets on). Nanami feels as though she’s stuck at age seventeen for being unable to let go of Yano, causing her to turn down Takeuchi’s marriage proposal. Every character is suffering in some way or another, and the future seems bleak for Yano and Nanami’s relationship. Each volume of We Were There is harder  to read than the last, not only because the tone of the series is becoming sadder and sadder, but also because it’s frustrating to feel so bad for these characters who are very much unable (or unwilling) to fix their relationships. If anything, the cover of volume 13 serves as a reminder of the past; of times that will never come again –  for both the characters and the audience.

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What’s art got to do with it?

What’s art got to do with it?

Everything, apparently. Something that really bothers me about some anime and manga fans is how often people will dismiss a great series because they didn’t care for its artwork. I feel like this especially happens with shojo, since it tends to be less action-oriented and thus more character-centric (and thus has a reputation for being ‘pretty). Older shojo series in particular tend to be negatively affected by people who refuse to touch anything with ‘ugly’ artwork. Take Boys Over Flowers, for example. The series is a classic, but I’ve seen people say that they dropped the series not because of its plot or characters, but because of its less-than-stylish artwork. Had they stuck with the series they would have realized how much the artwork improves, to the point that most of the characters are quite pretty. Same goes for Itazura na Kiss – although the series started in 1990, the character designs are very much stuck in the 80s, and thus some people have chosen not to give this charming series a chance. Even more contemporary manga like Skip Beat! suffer from this – I once encountered a girl on a forum who although she liked the story chose to drop the series 100 chapters in because she couldn’t stand the art. The only time I’ve ever held a manga’s artwork against it was Honey and Clover, but it still didn’t stop me from at least trying the series out (which I really liked once I did). Now, this isn’t to say that I don’t see why people care about the aesthetics of the manga they read – I’m sure there are lots of people who better appreciate the series they love if they also have great art, especially those readers who create art themselves.  It’s just that I’m not the type of person who would ever choose art over plot – because when I read a manga, I’m looking for an engaging plot and unique characters more than pretty pictures.

An early picture of Boys Over Flowers:

Here’s a picture of Boys Over Flowers from near the end of its run:

This works both ways, though. One of the most popular shojo right now (both in America and in Japan) is Vampire Knight. I’ve read the first seven volumes of the manga, but I found Yuki to be a pretty passive heroine, the series wasn’t engrossing enough for me to overlook the slow pace, and none of the characters’ personalities really appealed to me. But it sure has pretty boys. Because Vampire Knight isn’t exactly the best manga, I truly believe it wouldn’t be as popular as it is now if it weren’t for it’s good-looking artwork. Same goes for almost any Arina Tanemura manga. Now, to be fair, there are some people who are completely turned off by Arina Tanemura’s saucer-eyes and sugar-overloaded character designs. However, everytime I’ve heard people sing praises for the author, when they explain why they like her, their number one answer (and sometimes their only answer)  is that they like her artwork. I don’t know how good or bad Arina Tanemura is as a storyteller because I’ve never read any of her series, but I have to ask: would she be as popular if her pages weren’t filled with her signature long-haired damsels and frilly dresses? It’s hard to tell.

A huge part of Vampire Knight’s appeal is its attractive character designs. That, and the whole Twilight thing
The Devil Does Exist volumes 1-6

The Devil Does Exist volumes 1-6

So I’ll be reviewing the first half of The Devil Does Exist, a shojo manga by Mitsuba Takanashi of Crimson Hero fame. And I have to say, I liked Crimson Hero better. The characters in that series stand out much more, and the manga is more engrossing. The Devil Does Exist (also known as Akuma de Sorou in Japan) starts off when the lead female Kayano gets involved with Takeru Edogawa a.k.a “The Prince of Attraction” after accidentally giving him a love letter that she meant for someone else. He blackmails her into doing things for him and sitting through his classes, for which she slaps him and he becomes attracted to her. Coincidentally, it turns out Kayano’s mother is getting remarried…to Takeru’s father! Thus, Kayano is forced to contend with Takeru’s not-so-brotherly feelings for his new sister. The Devil Does Exist contains all of the usual shojo clichés – the disastrous love-letter confession, the stolen first kiss, the fan club that’s enamored with the main male love interest. But after awhile I began to feel as though the author was throwing in shojo clichés for the sake of having shojo clichés. This is especially evident in volume five when Takeru’s grandmother puts pressure on his father for Takeru to go through with an arranged marriage. This makes sense in political dramas like Goong or The Story of Saiunkoku, or even in series where the male love interest is from a prominent rich family like Tsukasa from Boys Over Flowers, but Takeru’s father is just a high-school principal, so I found the grandmother’s rush to get Takeru hitched really pointless. This is especially true because the meek, sheltered girl he’s engaged to, Rumi Saionji, after meeting Takeru once and realizing he isn’t the kind young man his grandmother described him to be, falls in love with him. Oookay.

But I think the biggest problem I had with this series is that Kayano sees her feelings for (and later, relationship with) Takeru as a ‘sin.’ My problem with Kayano’s guilt is probably due to my familiarity with Marmalade Boy, which is a much better series that also features stepsiblings who fall in love with one another. While in Marmalade Boy Miki and Yuu keep their relationship a secret from their parents much like Kayano and Takeru do, the fact that they are stepsiblings who are in love is treated as sort of a joke (at least until the end of the series). But in The Devil Does Exist, Kayano’s guilt over falling in love with her stepbrother is treated as the main dilemma of the manga, and this simply doesn’t work for me because I don’t feel as though it’s a strong enough conflict to carry a series. While Kayano fears the consequences of anyone finding out about her and Takeru, the series hasn’t convinced me that if their relationship were found out it would be the end of the world. Although at one point in volume three Kayano says that to a man of such social standing as Takeru’s father any scandal “would be a fate worse than death,” so far Takeru’s father has been extremely laid-back and affectionate towards his son, so I can’t imagine him getting that upset over Takeru’s choice of love interest. Besides, it’s not as though Takeru and Kayano are actually related by blood – because then their love really would be a sin!

Probably the most unique element of The Devil Does Exist is Takeru's sense of fashion. Seems like it's rubbing off on Kayano as well.

Unfortunately, CMX’s English translation of the series has done nothing to earn points for The Devil Does Exist in my book. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a translation that’s distracted me as much as in this series. The lines that are the most noticeably awkward are Yuzuru’s, an effeminate “stalker” who wants revenge against Takeru and is later revealed to be his brother. It’s obvious Yuzuru is supposed to be speaking strangely, but lines like “You wish to cultivate Yuzu as an enemy” and “I shall continue to await the collapse of your happiness!” are pretty difficult to stomach. There are also some weird word choices – Kayano’s monologues often include the word “incorrigible,” which doesn’t seem very casual and could easily have been replaced with “hopeless” or even “unforgivable.” I know it’s sort of a minor flaw, but the abundance of cumbersome dialogue really hurt my opinion of the manga. That being said, there are some shining moments in this series – particularly several early scenes between Takeru and Kayano as they realize their mutual feelings for each other – I just wish there were more of them. And as far as characters go, I find Takeru to be pretty intriguing because he knows how to push people’s buttons without pushing them away (or as Kayano puts it, he becomes a “devil” in order to help others). Even though I don’t dislike The Devil Does Exist, I really don’t know if I plan to continue this manga, but considering I already have volume 11 (the last volume) and managed to find volumes nine and ten for a dollar a piece, I may as well. Who knows, maybe the second half will be better. But I won’t hold my breath.

On Spoilers

On Spoilers

I’ve always been curious about the shojo anime Princess Tutu. I’ve literally never read a negative review of the series, and several of my friends have urged me to check it out. However, after accidentally coming into several spoilers about the series’ ending, I decided not to watch it. I don’t do well with spoilers – almost every anime that I’ve found out a major plot twist before watching it I ended up not even bothering to pursue it. For example, I thought the plot of Scrapped Princess, an anime about a princess who was rescued from being executed when she was a baby because of a prophecy that her sixteenth birthday would bring about the end of the world, sounded pretty intriguing. But when I read about the series’ final few episodes in an article of Animerica (yes, this was a long time ago), I gave up on the series. And I’ve always been curious about Escaflowne, which has been popular in America since the late-90s VHS-era of anime fandom, but when I came across a page on TV Tropes that ruined the ending of the series I decided against buying it when I saw it on sale. It doesn’t matter whether the ending is good or bad, happy or sad, once I’ve read about it, it’s much tougher for me to get into a series.

For some fans of Escaflowne, this DVD cover is a spoiler.

My disdain for spoilers, however, can come in contention with my position as a blogger. As much as I hate spoilers, I often find myself writing about them. Sure, I could try to tip-toe around spoilers and try to phrase things as vaguely as possible, but in doing so I feel as though I can’t effectively convey whatever points I’m trying to make. Not only is avoiding spoiling plot elements tough to do, I actually tend to be most interested in discussing plots, themes and characters that definitely are spoilers. Then comes the question ‘What is a spoiler?’ While most people would agree that major shifts in the plot, particularly the ending of a series, count as material that deserve a spoiler warning before discussing them, others would argue that a true spoiler is something that’s unpredictable. This complicates matters because some might argue that many series are quite predictable even up to their finales – so is it really a spoiler that a show ends just the way you’d expect to it to even after seeing just episode one? Meanwhile, I’ve seen a few series that early on take turns that are less predictable than the final episodes of other anime, and yet these shifts aren’t treated as spoilers. Perhaps this is because some fans play the numbers game: discussing a character or plot twist that shows up in episode 25 of a 26 episode series would be considered a spoiler but a character or plot twist that is revealed in, say, episode five is not – because five episodes isn’t so far into the series and whatever is revealed at this point can be seen as ‘common knowledge’ among fan discussions of a series. An example of this is Nuriko’s gender in Fushigi Yugi – the fact that Nuriko is a male is openly discussed among fans of the series despite the fact that this isn’t revealed until episode six of the anime. But I’ve seen people get mad at these types of spoilers as well – because although they may not be as important to the quality of a series as it’s ending, for some people ruining any unforseen details may negatively impact the viewing experience. For example, I’ve seen fans get annoyed at the choice of a DVD cover for Escaflowne because it revealed the true form of a certain character, which is only a secret for the first few episodes of the series.  As for my own take on what counts as  a spoiler, I’d firmly place the ending of series, as well as any huge (and unpredictable) changes in tone or plot into the ‘spoiler’ category.  And to reconcile my hatred of spoilers with my desire to discuss major plot changes, (not to mention to avoid being one of those people who ruins a series for someone), I do usually warn people if there are spoilers within a post I’ve written. The rest is up to their discretion.

Honey and Clover: more bitter than sweet

Honey and Clover: more bitter than sweet

At its core, Honey and Clover is a story about unrequited love. From Yamada’s pining for Mayama to Takemoto’s hidden feelings for Hagu, the pain of unfulfilled love resonates throughout the series. But there’s an even stronger sense of longing that isn’t romantic in its nature; rather, it’s about the love between friends. Honey and Clover perfectly captures the bittersweet sorrow of lost friendships. The theme of past friendship is threaded throughout the series by Takemoto’s poignant narration. The series seems heartbreakingly nostalgic, yet Takemoto isn’t simply looking back at his past through rose-colored glasses – instead he is commenting on the present, aware that one day the fun times he’s experiencing with his friends will one day be precious memories for him. At first, I never got why people loved Honey and Clover so much. The manga is funny, but it’s not the most hilarious series I’ve ever read, nor did I find any of the characters to be amazingly special (although I do like Ayu quite a bit). It wasn’t until recently re-reading the manga that I finally realized the magic of this series: I cared about the characters as a group of friends because they mirrored my own friendships, and I became emotionally invested in them staying together. The first time I ever felt like I connected to the series on a personal level is in volume three, when Takemoto and the others are enjoying their Christmas party. While the gang enjoys cake and roast chicken, Takemoto observes everyone, and suddenly comes to the quiet realization that this would probably be the “last Christmas we’d all spend together.” And in volume nine, the gang talks about going to the beach together and Takemoto wistfully notes that they never made it there, but instead they all imagined themselves there, carrying the image in their memories as though it were a photograph. It’s hard for me not to relate to this scene’s sense of nostalgia for a moment that never was.

The most iconic scene in Honey and Clover for me comes in during volume two, when Hagu, Takemoto, Mayama, Yamada and Morita all search (to no avail) for four-leaf clovers to give to Professor Hanamoto before he leaves for his trip to Mongolia. Takemoto’s narration is beautiful because it shows that even though the passage of time may separate friends, the bonds between them were definitely genuine and always will be: “I know the day will come when all of this is past, and it all becomes a memory. But I know I’ll remember it, over and over. You were there, and everybody was there…and we all looked for the same thing. That blue sky and the smell of the wind…and that endless carpet of clover.” Takemoto’s bittersweet narration reminds me of when my friends and I went to a park the day before our graduation from high school. As much fun as I had that day, I remember thinking that in the future this would become a memory I’d fondly look back on, and that it was probably going to be the last time my friends and I would all be together. I’m sure most people in high school and college are acutely aware when they form their friendships that there will be a day they will have to go their separate ways, and in Honey and Clover that moment inevitably comes when Takemoto and Hagu graduate from art school. Although he considers staying in town for Hagu’s sake, Takemoto realizes he simply has no purpose there, and moves away to begin a job restoring temples. But upon boarding the train to leave town, Hagu bestows Takemoto with one last gift: sandwiches filled with honey and four-leaf clovers. I think I’ve re-read this scene more than any other in the series, and it makes me cry every time. Honey and Clover is probably the only manga I’ve read that realistically portrays past friendship so well, to the point that incites reflections of my own experiences with a bittersweet fondness.

Black Bird: Longest. Sex. Scene. Ever.

Black Bird: Longest. Sex. Scene. Ever.

After eight volumes of fretting over where, when and in what position they should consummate their relationship, Kyo and Misao have finally done the deed. Because Kyo is a tengu (a crow demon), he and Misao were afraid of what would happen to her if they slept together and she got pregnant, but in volume eight, Kyo gets poisoned and he can only be cured through sex. Of course. Black Bird isn’t exactly the most thought-provoking manga, but volume eight of Viz’s release of the series definitely crystallizes just how guilty I feel at the enjoyment I get from reading this manga. I guess I should praise Kanako Sakurakoji for managing to make Kyo and Misao’s union such a climatic event despite the fact that all of the couple’s problems could easily be resolved by using a condom.  This was also the longest sex scene I’ve ever read in a manga, coming (haha) in at a length of 29 pages.  Black Bird was already full of body-licking flirtation and chocolate-covered foreplay, so I shouldn’t have expected that a sex scene in this series would be demure. Instead of describing this less-than-coy scene, I think I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Magic Knight Rayearth: less formula, more angst (spoilers!)

Magic Knight Rayearth: less formula, more angst (spoilers!)

This review contains many spoilers, so if you haven’t watched Rayearth in its entirety, please be advised before reading this.

I finally finished watching Magic Knight Rayearth, a 1994 shojo anime based on CLAMP’s fantasy manga. In it, junior-high school girls Hikaru Shidou, Umi Ryuuzaki and Fuu Hououji are summoned by Princess Emeraude to another world called Cephiro, in order to become the legendary Magic Knights, who must save the princess and protect Cephiro. I have to say that it took me awhile to finish this series. I think it was hard for me to muster up enthusiasm to continue it because it’s so formulaic. That’s part of the point – in one scene genre-savvy Fuu mentions that their quest to become Magic Knights is not unlike an RPG. But the pattern of the Magic Knights fighting against monsters and minions sent by the lead bad guy Zagato each episode became tiresome. What kept me interested, however, were the Magic Knights themselves, especially Hikaru. Hikaru was the most enthusiastic about becoming a Magic Knight because she wanted to help the people of Cephiro, and I really love how determined she is. Umi was the character who surprised me the most – at first, I expected her to be snobby because she initially wanted to return home and felt that protecting Cephiro wasn’t her business. But over the course of the series, Umi becomes very protective of her friends, and her kindness shines through. I found the intelligent and ultra-polite Fuu to be the least interesting of the Magic Knights, but I did appreciate her relationship with Ferio, a swordsman who occasionally helps the Magic Knights. Not to mention, Mokona’s adorable.

Hikaru, Fuu and Umi with Mokona in the center

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