Backflipped: Paradise Kiss

July 29, 2010

The Manga Moveable Feast for Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss is underway. As I sometimes like to do, I’m going to take a second look at a Flipped column I wrote at some point in 2005, I think. So heaven only knows how much freshening it’s going to require. Updates will appear bracketed in italic.

*

There’s been a dust-up on the comics internet over the past week or so. It started at The Engine, Warren Ellis’s forum, with a discussion of Tokyopop’s contracts for the creators of its Original English Language manga. What started as a conversation about creators’ rights has spun off far and wide into sometimes heated exchanges over creativity, independence, and risk. It’s charged with generational conflict, creative philosophy, big dreams, and bitter experience. [Man, remember when Ellis was the hot club owner of the nerd internet and all the kids would hang out there? Probably not, but this was the first big controversial deal I remember coming out of The Engine, and it got nasty. This was back when people cared about manga-ka being appropriately compensated before the current post-legal era. Also, I’m older than Warren Ellis, which is depressing, but what can you do? Still, nobody should be older than Warren Ellis except maybe Alan Moore.]

Throw in some sex and wry humor, and it would make a pretty terrific manga. Add some gorgeous art, and you’d have Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss.

Nana, Yazawa’s current series, is getting lots of buzz lately. It’s a perennial best-seller in Japan, with a recently released live-action movie. It’s currently being serialized in Viz’s Shojo Beat, and I like what I’ve seen. But I’ve decided to go the tankoubon route, preferring to consume my manga in digest-sized chunks rather than monthly chapters. [This ended up being not entirely true, as I did intermittently pick up a copy of Shojo Beat every now and then, so I’m not really responsible for the demise of the magazine. I particularly renewed my devotion when Honey and Clover and Sand Chronicles launched. Why is it taking Viz so long to start a Shojo Beat web portal? Do they not think that teen-aged girls and middle-aged gay men like to sample comics online?]

So I’ll have to content myself with frequent readings of Paradise Kiss, which has a lot of things going for it. I can think of ten right off the top of my head:

1. The art. Paradise Kiss is glorious to look at, which is only apt with its high-fashion milieu. Yazawa’s character designs are terrific, richly detailed and endlessly expressive. Settings are vivid and rendered with care. While Yazawa employs some familiar shôjo techniques, her work doesn’t look like any other shôjo title on the shelves. There’s a much higher panel count than average, but pages still have the fluidity and elegance of composition that characterizes the best shôjo. At the same time, it has an edge to it that’s surprising. And while Yazawa clearly adores rendering all kinds of couture, her illustrations are never fashion-spread flat. She may revel in an eye-popping outfit, but she never forgets the person wearing it. [I think Yazawa may have improved slightly between Paradise Kiss and Nana, but she may just have hired a larger staff of assistants to take some of the load off.]

2. The plot. Stripped to its bones, the plot of Paradise Kiss sounds like magic-girl manga. An average schoolgirl is swept into a world of creation and illusion, surrounded by mysterious, exotic people, finding hidden strengths and romance along the way. In this case, though, it’s cranky, middling student Yukari discovering the transformative power of style and passion. The exotics are student designers at Yazawa School for the Arts, who want leggy Yukari to model for them in a competition. As Yukari spends more and more time with the designers of Paradise Kiss, she questions her priorities. Her world view expands, and she finds the courage to chart her own course in life. It’s really that simple, but Yazawa fleshes it out with poignant emotional detail. [There’s also the prince-bad boy dyad of love interests, which is very popular in some magic-girl stories. Will Yukari connect with the ostensibly ideal but possibly dull guy from her class, or will she make it work with the hot, conceited bisexual clothing designer? Oh, we all know the answer to that before Yazawa even tells us, don’t we?]

3. Yukari. Nicknamed Caroline by her new friends, Yukari isn’t always the most agreeable tour guide. She’s short-tempered, sarcastic, and given to hysterics. She makes bad choices and acts rashly. But she learns, taking responsibility for her actions and doing her best to stick to her decisions. Over the course of the manga’s five volumes, she goes from pretty kid to lovely person, and it’s a pleasure to watch it unfold.

4. Miwako. At first glance, the reader might be justified in cringing at the sight of wide-eyed, childlike Miwako and wince at her tendency to refer to herself in the third person. But before you can write her off as another cutesy kewpie doll, it becomes evident that there are all kinds of layers under the ribbons and curls. She’s got a heart of gold and a spine of steel, and her friendship with Yukari is genuinely touching. Her relationship with ill-tempered punk Arashi is equally surprising. Their connection is conflicted, but it’s very layered and mature. In spite of her doll-like appearance and demeanor, she carries a lot of the book’s emotional weight like a champ. [While I like Arashi and Miwako’s moments of conflicts and connection, I actually think I prefer the bits where George willfully triggers Arashi’s gay panic. I love seeing fictional gay guys’ egos get the better of them to the point that they actually believe someone of George’s impeccable standards would be attracted to them.]

5. Isabella. I was initially a bit annoyed by the suspicion that Isabella, the elegant transvestite, would stay too far in the background, looking lovely and composed and not doing much of anything. And while it’s true that she gets the least amount of time in the spotlight, well, somebody has to be the grown-up in this crowd. Isabella is the quiet, reassuring eye of a storm of self-reinvention, and it makes perfect sense. Isabella has already reinvented herself to her own satisfaction, so who better to nurture her works-in-progress friends?

6. Hiro. In many other shôjo stories, Hiro would be the… well… hero. He’s handsome, popular, studious, and kind. It’s a testament to the appealing weirdness of the Yazawa Arts crowd that Hiro is left spending most of his time on the margins, worrying over Yukari’s well-being and future. But there’s something compelling about his decency, and I found myself rooting for him every time he appeared. He isn’t the flashiest character, but he strikes a chord.

7. The faces. When characters cry in Paradise Kiss, their soulful eyes don’t glisten with aesthetically pleasing tears. They cry ugly, faces contorted with frustration and sorrow. When they laugh, you can hear it. A blush isn’t just a flattering flutter of shadow across the cheekbones. Yazawa’s characters feel big and show it, which brings readers even further into their emotional states.

8. The complexity. Those emotional states aren’t cut and dried. Yukari embarks on an ill-advised romance with suave, bisexual George, the creative force behind Paradise Kiss and owner of a set of designer emotional baggage. While a lot of shôjo romances make mileage out of those standby traumas – Does he love me? Does he even know I’m alive? – Paradise Kiss asks harder questions. Yukari is swept away by George’s charm even as she’s repelled by his arrogance. She doesn’t wonder if George loves her so much as if he loves her enough, and she isn’t proud of what she’s doing to herself to be with him. It’s not a question of “will-they/won’t-they”; it’s more “should they?” [By “complexity,” I also mean “sadness,” because things don’t end the way you might expect them to in a manga of this category. There’s real disappointment and pain, though everything ends up being for the best, which is a really rare argument for a shôjo manga-ka to make.]

9. The words. I wonder sometimes if I don’t give enough credit to the translators and adaptors who work in the manga industry. Part of it comes from my complete inability to read Japanese, so I’m reluctant to single out that part of the process when I can’t make any kind of informed comparison. But the group responsible for the English-language of Paradise Kiss has given readers a sharp, layered script. The characters have distinct voices. The comedy has punch, and the drama is rich with memorable turns of phrase.

10. Holes in the fourth wall. I’m usually a big fan of the fourth wall, and I can find coy meta references a little irritating. But Yazawa has a real facility for these moments, when her characters wink at the audience. They make for some delightful levity, and given the hyper-dramatic nature of her cast, they make a weird kind of sense. Instead of undermining the world of the manga, they contribute to its charm and even its coherence. (And if Yazawa didn’t indulge in them, I’d have been deprived of the exchange where Isabella tells George that he’s failing to live up to the manga hero standard.)

So if, like me, you’re waiting for the trade on Nana, you should really consider wiling away the weeks with Paradise Kiss. It’s an engrossing, unconventional shôjo.

[I sort of neglected George in this, didn’t I? One would conclude that I don’t like him, or that he ranks eleventh or lower. I don’t really dislike George, but he always felt more like a catalyst in terms of this particular story. To my thinking, this is because he’s the character with the clearest view of what his future will be like. He’s written the interviews and can hear the glowing reviews in his head. There are variables in this future, and I don’t think he’s biding his time with Yukari. I genuinely believe that he’s open to a future with her, but I also believe he recognizes the possibility that she won’t be a part of the future he imagines for himself. He feels for her, but she’s not one of the givens of his future. I think that’s a fascinating stance for a character to assume, but it doesn’t make him immediately likable, if that makes any sense.
[I’m sure there’s fan fiction that features George’s future romantic misfortunes, and there’s probably stacks of doujinshi that features a full range of possible boyfriends for him. I’d be willing to read them, especially if they believably portray him getting his heart broken.]


Art, commerce, and josei

June 28, 2010

If you haven’t already done so, please go read the excellent Komiksu: Marketing Art Manga roundtable over at The Hooded Utilitarian. As the week progressed, the manga under consideration was redefined as “awesome manga,” meaning stuff that falls out of the contemporary shônen-shôjo mainstream, so “art manga” ended up being only a portion of the comics under consideration, which is all to the good, in my opinion.

Two of the participants, Deb Aoki and Brigid Alverson, mentioned Mari Okazaki’s lovely office-lady comic, Suppli. It’s mainstream josei in Japan, but the category is still rather anemic in translation. After publishing three volumes, Tokyopop put the highly regarded but perhaps commercially shaky property on hiatus, but they’re resuming publication, and the (combined?) fourth (and fifth?) volume(s?) goes on sale in comic shops this week.

Since I love the book, I thought I’d re-run my Flipped column on Suppli, originally published at The Comics Reporter.

Update: In the comments, Derik (Madinkbeard) Badman points to his great, image-heavy look at the visuals of Suppli.

*

I like escapism in my comics. It’s fun to watch characters do amazing things in places I’m never likely to go, set in a vividly imagined future or carefully recaptured past. Sometimes, though, it’s just as pleasurable to settle in to a comic set in the here and now and get the sense that you could know the characters and live their lives.

That’s one of the qualities that’s so enjoyable about Mari Okazaki’s Suppli (Tokyopop). It’s about the uneasy balance between work and the rest of a person’s life, and Okazaki evokes that familiar tension with a lot of fidelity and detail.

Writers of contemporary fiction will at least know what their characters do for a living. It’s part of meeting the minimum hurdle of suspension of disbelief, of answering readers’ questions as to how these fictional people pay their bills and keep roofs over their heads. Many don’t go beyond that, though. Gainful employment informs everything about Suppli.

Minami Fujii, Okazaki’s 27-year-old protagonist, works in advertising. Her career is a lot of cubicle toil and drudgery spiked with infrequent moments of glamour and triumph. Okazaki takes the reader through the endless meetings, long hours, and petty frustrations that fill up Fujii’s average day. The young executive finds even more time to devote to her career when her longtime boyfriend dumps her.

Before you conclude that Okazaki is punishing Fujii for her professional dedication, she’d been waffling about ending the relationship herself. It was clearly in Woody Allen’s “dead shark” territory, and the end was inevitable, but nobody likes being beaten to the punch. Even if the relationship wasn’t inspiring, it was reliable, and its conclusion leaves a void. It also triggers a string of unpleasant realizations in Fujii.

Hard as she works, she senses that she hasn’t invested anything meaningfully personal in her work. She barely knows her co-workers, and she hasn’t really mapped out any kind of professional trajectory. While Fujii doesn’t settle on a specific destination (professional advancement, marriage, both, neither), she dedicates herself to work and to connecting to her colleagues. The development seems to be equal parts avoiding thinking about the break-up and a genuine desire to fully commit to work. It’s one of many examples of Okazaki giving her characters multiple, concurrent motivations, and she does so without judgment.

Fujii can look at an older woman co-worker with a mixture of admiration, pity, and fear for her own future. She can contemplate the romantic possibilities presented by her male co-workers without appearing calculating or flighty. She can invest herself fully in projects that go nowhere or let details derail a promising pitch. Even buying a purse can be a journey fraught with peril and indecision. In Okazaki’s world, there’s nothing wrong with ambivalence.

Okazaki has a lovely way of showing as well as telling. Panel composition and page layout almost function as a sort of mood ring, reflecting Fujii’s state of mind. Workplace sequences have a crowded angularity that communicates the frenzied demands of her day. Reflective moments have a more fluid quality, and a quietness that can relax into sensuality with the track of Fujii’s thoughts. The sexy moments (and Fujii does manage to have a sex life) combine all of those qualities, half hot, half awkward. Okazaki has a wide range of tools in her aesthetic kit, and she applies them all with style and a unifying sensibility.

Suppli conveys a specific woman’s life with both microscopic detail and emotional sweep. Fujii may feel like her life is out of balance, but Okazaki’s portrayal is keen and clear.

On the down side, it’s impossible to know when readers might see more of it. When Tokyopop experienced its drastic reversals last year, Suppli was one of the titles that wound up in scheduling limbo. Only three volumes are available in English, and there’s no indication of when (or if) the next will be released. That’s no reason to deprive yourselves of what is available, of course. As Okazaki argues so persuasively, uncertain outcomes are no reason not to try.

*


Everyone’s headed To Terra…

May 24, 2010

Another round of the Manga Moveable Feast is underway, hosted by Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey and examining To Terra… (Vertical), written and illustrated by Keiko Takemiya. I’m looking forward to seeing what people have to say about this book, which I think is very much in the “underappreciated gem” category. I’ll have my contribution ready on Wednesday, but in the meantime, I thought I’d repost a portion of an old Flipped column that looks at another Takemiya work, Andromeda Stories. The original column was posted at The Comics Reporter.

Andromeda Stories is a bit less layered, and its story is a bit more conventional. A peaceful society is infested with robotic creatures that ruthlessly remake it into an armed camp, devouring its natural resources in the process. A handful of escapees offer resistance and are joined by alien survivors of the robots’ previous invasions.

There’s considerable set-up in the first of the series’ three volumes. Takemiya lines up her pins with efficiency, but the operatic qualities seem muted as a result. There are lots of characters to introduce, sometimes twice. (To appreciate the full horror of the robot’s influence, Takemiya gives readers a sense of what the victims were like before and what was lost.) It’s heavy on plot, and it’s deftly delivered, but it lacks the moody sweep that To Terra… had from its first pages. Fortunately, that sweep kicks in with the second volume and builds through to the end.

One thing that particularly strikes me about Takemiya is her facility at showing fractures among people who share a purpose. In Andromeda Stories, those conflicts are personified by Prince Jimsa, raised in hiding and believed by many to be the world’s only hope against the robots. Interpretations of how his role will play out vary, and Jimsa is more focused on protecting his fragile, ambivalent mother than being any kind of savior. Given the number of genre elements that are woven in along the way — a secret twin, a group of extraterrestrial conspirators, a warrior woman from space, good robots, bad robots, a kindly whore and an even kindlier gladiator — it’s rather remarkable that Takemiya can juggle them all and still convey the story’s emotional core. She even finds room for comic relief.


Kirihito reprise

March 29, 2010

Vertical is releasing Osamu Tezuka’s Ode to Kirihito in two paperback volumes, so I thought I’d take the arrival to revisit my review of the book. This column was originally published on Nov. 6, 2006, at Comic World News. Any updated thoughts will be in italics.

*

What is it about Osamu Tezuka?

How is it that his works don’t seem to age? How can he embody so many graphic idioms, from four-panel pratfalls to grisly realism, and have them cohere into such an effective and singular style? And how can he execute a theme like “What does it mean to be human?”, so potentially earnest that typing it makes me cringe, and turn it into something sprawling and gripping?

Ultimately, I think it’s passion. There’s no arguing that manga wouldn’t be what it is today had it not been for his desire to elevate comics beyond an amusement for children into a medium that could offer something for every audience. But focusing on his impact as an industry figure, substantial as it is, can tend to obscure his accomplishments as a manga-ka.

Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of the vibrancy and range of his creations, from Astro Boy (Dark Horse) to Phoenix (Viz) to Buddha (Vertical). I think Vertical’s recent release of Ode to Kirihito offers the best evidence yet of Tezuka’s standing as “the God of Manga.” [Since Ode to Kirihito was originally released in English, Vertical has published MW, also recently re-released, Dororo, and Black Jack, each of which is excellent in distinct ways. Vertical has also announced the English-language release of Ayako.]

It’s Tezuka’s first effort in the gekiga category of comics for adults, summarized here by comics scholar Paul Gravett. Part medical thriller, it’s mostly a meditation on human weakness – cruelty, greed, racism, destructive ambition, hypocrisy. The disease that drives the action, Monmow, causes humans to physically degenerate into dog-like creatures, but Tezuka finds humanity’s moral degeneration much more alarming.

Tezuka’s protagonist, young and moral physician Kirihito Osanai, is searching for the disease’s origins under the guidance of politically ambitious Dr. Tatsugaura. Osanai’s supervisor believes Monmow is contagious, perhaps viral; he also believes his research will be a ticket to power and influence in the medical community. Osanai suspects Monmow has an environmental cause, and his forthright efforts to prove this put him in terrible danger.

They also lead him on a world tour of some of the worst human failings. It begins in the remote village of a Monmow patient, where Osanai contracts the disease himself. From there, it’s virtually impossible to succinctly describe what the good doctor endures in his quest for truth, vindication, and revenge. That’s partly because the book is packed with event, but it’s also due to a reluctance to spoil anything.

Osanai goes from peril to peril, tragedy to tragedy, fending off the impulse to succumb to despair with varying degrees of success. As he does so, colleague Dr. Urabe endures an equally dangerous journey, though it’s largely spiritual. Urabe faces external and internal corruption; his nobler impulses are often overwhelmed by an unexpected capacity for brutality.

[Urabe is] capable of compassion, as with a nun suffering from Monmow. He recognizes Tatsugaura’s myriad failures of character and suspects the lengths his superior will go to in service of his ambition. But he’s selfish and weak in big and small ways, and each forward step he makes toward morality and responsibility is matched or surpassed by a backwards one. He’s a fascinating character, even more than Osanai, because there’s no certainty. While Osanai isn’t exactly a plaster saint, he’s got a moral core. Urabe is unmoored.

[Ode to Kirihito is] a richly populated work, which should come as no surprise, given Tezuka’s profound humanism. He unflinchingly portrays the worst kind of human behavior, but he refrains from portraying anyone as entirely evil. As extreme as their actions may be, no character in Ode to Kirihito is a cardboard monster. There’s always a kernel of humanity, which makes the portrayal of their venality even more effective. [It has been argued to me that Tezuka is much more cynical than humanist, that his portrayals of the depths of human depravity indicate a lack of faith. I still think that Tezuka’s examination of the horrors people can commit doesn’t indicate condemnation so much as frank appraisal in the context of how people can persevere.]

There’s always some dissonance for me in Tezuka’s illustrations. Profoundly influenced by the animated films of Walt Disney (and by film in general), Tezuka’s art has cinematic energy and pacing, informed by a cartoonist’s imagination. Page layout is often imaginative and expressive, and passion is evident on every page. But Tezuka is also one of the progenitors of “big eyes and speed lines.” His repertory company of frankly adorable figures is playing out deadly serious drama, and the counterpoint can be startling. But ultimately it’s a happy, effective dissonance because of Tezuka’s passionate sincerity as a storyteller. [Over at The Comics Reporter, Tom Spurgeon provided a wonderful commentary on the things that Tezuka does so well.]

By all rights, the sheer weight of Tezuka’s reputation and his idiosyncrasies as a creator should make his work seem like museum pieces. But when reading his work, I almost never find myself viewing it through a “for its time” prism. In this case, it may be partly due to the fact that the failures of response to Monmow and the ostracism of its early victims that Tezuka portrays have an eerie prescience when one compares them to the beginnings of the AIDS crisis a decade after this story was published. The beautiful production by Vertical, particularly the sleek and stylish cover design by Chip Kidd, doesn’t hurt either. [I’m sure Vertical’s production values on the paperback versions will be equally exemplary.]

Ultimately, I think it all does come down to passion. Tezuka not only loved the potential of graphic storytelling, he clearly loved the act of it, and that’s so evident here. I may know what to expect from Tezuka in simple terms – the style, the worldview, the scope – but I’m constantly surprised by the way they manifest themselves.

*

You can view a lengthy preview of Ode to Kirihito at Vertical’s listing page.


Flap flap flap

February 1, 2010

Panels by Kiyohiko Azuma make everything more cheerful, don’t you think? Anyway, here’s the link to this week’s Flipped, which will also be the last installment of that column. I explain everything there. It’s a good thing.


He’s just not that into you

January 25, 2010

Dude… harsh. That’s Naoki Irie from Kaoru Tada’s Itazura Na Kiss (Digital Manga), which just happens to be the subject of this week’s Flipped. It’s a very enjoyable comic in its own right, and I think it’s interesting to consider it in context, particularly when that context is inspired by Shaenon K. Garrity.


Ono, Ono, Ono

January 18, 2010

Hey, are you sick of me obsessing over Natsume Ono? If so, this week’s Flipped is probably not for you. And I make no promises about the situation improving in the future. And yes, I am illustrating my blog like a teenager pasting magazine covers to the inside of my locker. I make no apologies.