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.

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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.]


Previews review July 2010

July 3, 2010

The July 2010 Previews catalog is out. Here are a few highlights:

I don’t really understand the concept of Hidekaz Himaruya’s Hetalia Axis Powers (Tokyopop), but it’s generated a lot of excitement, so I’ll just copy the solicitation text:

“Germany is the bully, Italy is the pest, and Japan is the exotic new friend from the East! When this bad boy club clashes with the hamburger-loving America and stodgy old Great Britain, it’s all-out war – WWII, that is – portrayed in hysterical, politically incorrect 4-panel comic strips!”

Oh, manga. (Page 328.)

Speaking of titles that triggered joy when their licensing was announced, there’s Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game (Viz). Sports manga (baseball, in this case) doesn’t do spectacularly well over here, but there’s a lot of fondness directed at this particular work. (Page 338.)

I loved the first volume of Yumi Unita’s Bunny Drop (Yen Press) so much that I reserve the right to mention every time a new volume is due to arrive, mostly because it doesn’t seem like on the fast-track release system. Anyway, the second volume is listed here, so pre-order it and make it the huge hit it deserves to be. (Page 344.)


Upcoming 6/30/2010

June 29, 2010

Poor Chi looks nervous about this week’s comic-shop debut! Yes, the eagerly-awaited first volume arrives Wednesday, though it may already be in bookstores. And if you would like to try and win a volume or two, you have until midnight (EST) tonight!

Speaking of eagerly awaited volumes, Tokyopop unveils a combined four-and-fifth-volume collection of Mari Okazaki’s Suppli, a series I discussed at length here.

The masochist in me will sometimes emerge when Marvel tries one of its hundreds of new takes on their Avengers properties. I really didn’t care for the self-referential and -congratulatory script and even less for the kind-of-ugly art on adjective-free Avengers, and while I thought Stuart Immonen’s pencils for New Avengers were terrific and witty, I had no patience for the script. (Um, Luke, do you have any idea what your property taxes will be like on a Fifth Avenue mansion? Not to mention the utilities? Tony Stark didn’t do you any favors.) I’d love it if Immonen was drawing Ed Brubaker’s Secret Avengers, as I like the set-up and cast a lot. I don’t dislike Mike Deodato’s pencils, but I do find them a little Swimsuit Issue for my tastes. They aren’t objectionable enough to keep me from checking out the second issue, because the first was written well, and I can’t believe it took someone this long to put Valkyrie and the Black Widow on the same team.


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.

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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.

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Upcoming 5/26/2010

May 25, 2010

Before I get into this week’s ComicList, I wanted to do some linkblogging.

There are two pieces celebrating the CMX catalog. Over at Mania, a quartet of writers compiles a list of “20 Must Have CMX Manga.” The Good Comics for Kids crew focuses on tween- and teen-friendly titles in “The GC4K Guide to CMX Manga.” Pieces like this are important, as DC has already dismantled its CMX web site, and all links to title information now go to a listing for the second issue of the Brightest Day mini-series. That strikes me as both telling and tastelessly ironic.

Over at The Beat, Rich Johnson takes manga’s pulse in an interesting overview. Johnson was DC’s Vice President of Book Trade Sales Sales during the early days of CMX before helping launch Yen Press for Hachette. Over at Robot 6, Brigid (MangaBlog) Alverson examines some of Johnson’s points, finding cause for disagreement. I’m particularly smitten with this passage:

“The graphic novel market boom of the early 2000s was due in part to the fact that publishers started serving the other half of the population. For a long time there were no comics for girls; then suddenly, there were, and the girls bought them. Dismissing their tastes as Rich does (or by complaining about comics being too pink and sparkly) ignores the fact that their money is just as good as any Dark Horse fan’s. Certainly, the opening of the manga market to more literary titles is a welcome development, as is the fact that many indy publishers are now embracing manga. That’s the kind of book I like to read. But the comics market is much bigger than me and my tastes. Girls like to read about schoolgirls with superpowers. You can tell them that’s stupid, or you can publish comics they like (keeping in mind that even genre fans can distinguish between a good comic and a bad one). One of those is a winning business strategy, and one isn’t.”

In the comments, Melinda (Manga Bookshelf) Beasi helps demolish the initial argument about the declining demand for comics for girls and the underestimated relevance of piracy with some page-view figures from scan sites. Those two birds never stood a chance!

Want some manga for grown-ups? Viz provides with the eighth volume of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, which is my favorite Urasawa title to be released in English so far. It feels like it should be able to save a category, you know?

In the mood for something in the classic vein? Vertical offers the 11th volume of Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack.

Looking for a Japanese take on the comic strip? Tokyopop delivers the first volume of Kenji Sonishi’s Neko Ramen, about a cat who works in a noodle shop.

Wondering if Del Rey is still licensing manga? Well, there’s the debut of Fairy Navigator Runa, written by Miyoko Ikeda and illustrated by Michiyo Kikuta. It originally ran in Kodansha’s Nakayoshi shôjo magazine and is about one of those pesky magical girls.

I might not be finished with my Marvel spite purchases. After seeing some preview pages from the first issue of Secret Avengers, written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Mike Deodato, I have to say that the idea of the Black Widow and Valkyrie fighting side by side is very much to my theoretical taste, as I’ve always liked those two heroines a lot. I do think someone needs to get Deodato a subscription to Vogue as quickly as possible, as he’s been drawing the same “sexy evening dress” since before Heroes Reborn.

Oh, and speaking of Marvel purchases, non-spite category, I entirely agree with this review of the second issue of Girl Comics, particularly for the nice things said about the contributions by Faith Erin Hicks and Colleen Coover. On the whole, I found the second issue to be much stronger than the first. I do totally hate the fact that the Scarlet Witch is painted as the villainess on the cover, but I’m sure that’s an inadvertent jab at my deep, deep bitterness on the subject.


Upcoming 5/5/2010

May 4, 2010

It’s time for our weekly look at the ComicList.

Topping the list is the eighth volume of Hinako Ashihara’s Sand Chronicles (Viz). This installment marks the conclusion of the main story, which began with our heroine, Ann, as an 11-year-old moving to the countryside and ends with her as a 20-something working woman making tough life choices and evaluating the highs and lows of the years that have passed. That long-view approach to a character’s development would be reason enough to spark interest in Sand Chronicles, but it’s Ashihara’s sensitive approach to sometimes melodramatic material that really makes this series a treasure. I’m assuming that Viz will publish the ninth and tenth volumes, which apparently feature side stories about the supporting cast. I can’t wait to read them.

Sensitivity is generally kept to a minimum in Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (Del Rey), when it isn’t actually called out as a target for mockery. That’s part of the charm. And really, everything is a target for mockery in this rapid-fire satire of contemporary culture, now up to its sixth volume.

The eighth issue of Brandon Graham’s King City arrives courtesy of Image and Tokyopop. We’re into the previously unpublished material at this point, and it’s very enjoyable stuff. The twelfth issue will be the last, at least according to the solicitation in the new Previews.

I can’t say enough good things about the first volume of Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica (Vertical), so I’ll point you to someone who says them better. That would be Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey, who offers a lovely assessment of the volume here.

Back with Viz, we have the debut of Flower in a Storm, written and illustrated by Shigeyoshi Takaka. It’s about a super-rich guy who falls in love with a super-athletic girl and tries to hound her into falling in love with him. She can hold her own, and he’s lovable in a stupid sort of way (as opposed to a princely, know-it-all way), so the dynamic isn’t as gross as it could be (and has been). I read a review copy courtesy of Viz, and it’s not bad. I’ll probably read the second volume, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of title that will reside forever in my shôjo-geek heart. This is in spite of the fact that it was originally published in Hakusensha’s LaLa and LaLa DX, which almost always generate titles I love.

And it’s time for another tidal wave of One Piece (Viz), written and illustrated by Eiichiro Oda. We get volumes 44 through 48 and the omnibus collecting volumes 10 through 12. I plan on writing a full entry on the omnibus sometime in the next week, because I’m tragic that way, so I’ll just note that lots of important things happen in this omnibus. This being Oda, the milestones pass much more efficiently than they would in other shônen series so that he can fixate on what seems like a side story and turn it into an epic. I’ll also note about the series in general that it reminds me of a really good Avengers run. The cast is a great mix of heavy hitters and try hard-ers, each with their own moving, consequential back story, and they’re together because they want to be. Unlike even the best Avengers runs, the cast of One Piece actually helps people rather than just responding to attacks from people who hate them. (There’s plenty of that kind of material too.)


Upcoming 4/28/2010

April 27, 2010

It’s always handy when a theme emerges in the items that catch my eye from the current ComicList. And it’s nice that this week’s theme centers on great female protagonists.

Okay, so it’s not so nice that there’s such a long wait between new issues of Stumptown (Oni Press), written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by Matthew Southworth, and colored by Rico Renzi. It’s about a hard-living Portland private investigator trying to figure out why the daughter of a casino owner disappeared, and trying to stay alive until she finds the answer. The third issue arrives Wednesday.

If you like suspense but prefer your protagonists a little less seedy, I’d recommend the fourth volume of Fire Investigator Nanase (CMX), written by Izo Hashimoto and illustrated by Tomoshige Ichikawa. Nanase is a plucky arson investigator who shares a complex relationship with the Firebug, whose name says it all. It’s a fun procedural with likeable leads.

Moving to the awesome shôjo front, we’ll start with the eighth volume of V.B. Rose (Tokyopop), written and illustrated by Banri Hidaka. Heroine Ageha is a budding handbag designer who goes to work for a bridal shop, then falls in love with the shop’s lead designer. Ageha is impulsive and talented, and Arisaka is bristly and businesslike. They have great chemistry, and the bridal-shop sparkle is undeniably eye-catching.

There’s also the fourth volume of Kimi Ni Todoke (Viz), written and illustrated by Karuho Shiina. Good-hearted, socially inept Sawako continues her campaign to win friends and influence people after years of being dismissed and avoided as the class creepy girl. This time around, she throws down with a romantic rival, though it’s entirely likely that Sawako won’t realize that she’s throwing down.

Those two titles alone make this one of the best shôjo Wednesdays imaginable. If a new volume of Itazura Na Kiss came out, I would burst into a cloud of sparkly chrysanthemum petals.