Monday, February 20, 2017

Dysfunctional Relationships: Sometimes They Work and Sometimes . . .

One could argue that ALL relationships are dysfunctional. For the purposes of this post, I am addressing relationships where there is an obvious imbalance within the relationship dynamic: the woman who wants to marry a daddy figure; the man who wants to marry a mommy type; the ill person who marries a caretaker (where caretaking is the element that holds them together) and so on.

My perspective is that however off-putting I might find this type of dynamic, if it works for the involved parties, good for them!

Problems occur when (1) the people involved in the relationship change, thereby dropping the roles that run the dynamic; (2) the people involved in the relationship want outcomes incompatible with the dynamic.

Dollhouse by Ibsen is a good example of both. The relationship between husband and wife is a father-daughter one. Nora is a little-girl woman, being endlessly cared for by her husband, Torvald. Until it turns out that Torvald is lousy at being a father figure. When Nora realizes that he wants her to be both little girl who follows his lead AND independent woman who makes difficult choices for the family, she figures, "Why bother?" and leaves.

I don't see this as necessarily a feminist message (and other critics agree) since I maintain that the original dynamic was okay so long as the people involved were also okay with it.

Konohara uses a similarly disturbing
relationship dynamic in About Love: needy
guy demands constant reassurance from
his kind but teasing lover--however, in
About Love, the characters both seem
okay with what they have signed up for.
Not-being-okay-with-it reminds me of a YA book I read ages ago, whose title and author I have since forgotten. A young man "rescues" an overweight, non-popular girl in his high school. Once she gains confidence and loses weight, she moves on. The young man is dismayed and feels rejected, but the book  doesn't automatically defend his viewpoint. The girl was tired of being treated like a project--except treating her like a project is precisely what enthralled the young man. He wasn't going to change, so she did.

Don't Tell Mama by Narise Konohara uses a similar plot but is far less realistic. Yuichi falls for Imakura when Imakura is a whining, tubby, low self-esteem mama's boy. Konohara--who is a decent writer and character analyst--does a notable job selling Yuichi's attraction to Imakura. Yuichi is a bit of a bully but not enough to want to abuse someone. The relationship dynamic of controlling-man-who-pampers-his-babyish-yet-endearing-lover satisfies his ego and his sexual needs. Yuichi doesn't want Imakura in spite of his traits--he is turned on by those traits.  

This, I maintain, is not only believable (hey, relationships are weird); it isn't a problem. Chacun a son gout or "Whatever turns you on," as Detective Wentworth says on Barney Miller ("I thought [that saying] was about your health," Wojo says. "It is," she replies).

The problem with the novel is not that Imakura will go back to living with his mother once he and Yuichi leave their island love nest. Narise Konohara disposes of this issue by having the mother remarry, leaving Imakura at loose ends. I find it entirely plausible that Imakura would then turn to his lover to supply him with the relationship needs he has lost. Since Yuichi is willing--that's the end of the story!

Actually, it's not. Konohara has Imakura undergo substantial changes--he gets a job doing something he likes, becomes a decent co-worker who looks out for others rather than blaming them for his mistakes, moves out on his own, and even loses weight. Yet she wants to reader to believe that Imakura and Yuichi can still make a go of it.

I get a kick out of the utterly
dysfunctional relationship here, mostly
because--in true academic fashion--both
characters are aware of their problems 
and even capable of (over) analyzing them.
Not that they will act on the analysis.
It's about self-knowledge, dude.
I should clarify at this point that I'm not saying that people in relationships can't change and grow while remaining together. It happens all the time! I am saying that when a relationship is based on a particular set of variables, changing those variables will (temporarily or permanently) unsettle the relationship. And if attraction is based on those variables, removing those variables will inevitably challenge the attraction.

At this point, the die hard romantics may wish to contend that Yuichi didn't fall in love with Imakura's mommy issues, his babyish behavior, and his weight but with his essence.

Except that "falling in love with someone's essence" is about as remote and meaningless as, well, most metaphysical statements. It also contradicts the text. Yuichi clearly falls for Imakura on the island (before most of Imakura's major changes) and falls for all of him, from his personality flaws (passivity, neediness, inexperience) to his physical self. In fact, Yuichi is a little surprised to discover how much the relationship satisfies him at a psychical level. Some link in his mental blueprint of relationships has snapped into place--why ruin a good thing?

In other words, Yuichi does not fall in love with Imakura's potential. He and Imakura discuss what Imakura might do with  his life after the island, but none of those discussions motivate Yuichi in the present. Yuichi is entirely motivated by Imakura being passive, pathetic, needy, inexperienced and a literal handful. 

Consequently, the end of the book leaves one with the uneasy feeling that before long, Yuichi will be forcing Imakura to quit his new job, never take the initiative in the relationship, run to Yuichi for ego boosts, and gain back the weight he lost.

Which could work!--so long as the reader believes that such an outcome is what Imakura truly wants. Otherwise, the guy needs to get himself into a more workable relationship. Yuichi can find someone else to pamper.   

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Collection Review: Yellow

Goh on the left; Taki on the right.
My last review tackled Fake by Sanami Matoh. Although I didn't read Yellow next, I am reviewing it next since I read Yellow because of Fake.

When I first starting reading yaoi, I had no idea what to read or where to start. (There are many more shojo series in libraries, so it is easier to try-out-discard-and-move-on with shojo than with yaoi.) I ordered a few volumes through Amazon (more on this later). In the meantime, since Yellow was advertised at the end of a Fake volume, I decided to give it a try. Two guys--neither androgynous, however slender--who investigate possible crimes!

That was my introduction to Tateno. I now own several of her series.

Tateno is an interesting mangaka since, like Fumi Yoshinaga, she captures the plot, characterization, and tone necessary to the genre in which she is working: sci-fi, fantasy, contemporary mystery, etc. She also includes strong female characters in her yaoi (I admit to being bemused by yaoi that completely eliminates female characters from the plot-lines).

Yellow is contemporary mystery/suspense. It is in some ways more classic than Fake since Taki is an uke who thinks he is straight. However, Tateno provides him with a complicated psychological reason for being so confused (doesn't he know he is fated to be with Goh?!).

Goh and Taki are not as fleshed out as Ryo and Dee--we never learn, for example, who is better at saving money. But they do fulfill their archetypal roles: Goh as the brash romantic; Taki as the troubled philosopher. By the time I read Yellow, I had begun to realize that simply creating distinct manga characters was a feat in itself. I remember who Goh and Taki are. I don't think, "Oh, yeah, it's that manga where there's some guy who really wants another guy and he's handsome and, uh, um, yeah, like that . . . "

The crime stories are not as well-plotted as in Fake--a few resolutions depend entirely on coincidence. But the stories have plots and the dialog is fresh, often reaching classic comedy banter quality.

Tateno's art is not my favorite but I still enjoy it. It is often non-proportional--she uses elongated lines, so people's arms and legs are often far too long for reality. Yet like Matoh, she captures motion and energy. She also has the ability, like Fuyumi Soryo of Mars, to create images that evoke moments and vistas full of yearning.

It is not altogether fair to compare authors/illustrators to each other. In a future review of a Tateno series, I'll discuss her work more specifically. But since I came to Yellow from Fake, a few comparisons to other mangaka seemed appropriate here.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Japanese Slapstick

Image result for library wars Kasahara animeI remember the moment I realized that the Japanese are not all math-oriented, serious geeks (note: I see nothing wrong with being a math-oriented, serious geek).

Prior to that moment, if anyone had said to me, "But people are people. Why can't the Japanese be as silly and raunchy as everyone else?" I would have agreed. I wasn't intellectually surprised to find out I was wrong.

But, cultural assumptions being what they are, I was surprised:
So . . . I'm watching a clip of Japanese television. What's on is some type of game show or reality show where the hosts wake people up in the morning--you know, with the bed head and sleepy voice, etc. etc. This is, apparently, hilarious.

And the host makes a fart joke.

I'm not kidding!
This was my initial introduction to what cultural critics often still misunderstand: the Japanese are fans of all kinds of bodily humor, including slapstick.

I am not, which may be why I didn't notice it for so long. But the Three Stooges leave me cold. (I was the kind of kid who felt sorry for the Coyote in The Road Runner--seriously: I hated the Road Runner.)

I don't especially mind (illustrated) slapstick in manga, mostly because it is less violent than farcical--less Three Stooges, more Mr. Bean--and--perhaps mistakenly--because I read it as almost entirely representational.

Sometimes the slapstick is obviously representational, such as the manga and anime scenes in Library Wars where Kasahara "freaks out" in her head about something someone has said (see above). However, often, the physical humor is exactly what it appears to be: people are giving each other headbutts and noogies and wrestling each other to the ground. Which can be cute but often make me glad I'm not watching the encounters live.

And sometimes, the physical humor is utterly amusing, such as the omake (a possible non-canon ending invented by the mangaka herself) of Wild Rock in which the hero, instead of rescuing the main protagonist from a lion, is eaten!

"So now a moment of silence," writes Kazusa Takashima in her notes, "for that poor, pathetic, but brave man who lost his life for love."

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Animals and Personality in Manga

When I was growing up, my family occasionally played a kind of 20-anthropomorphizing-questions game; the answer was always a person while the questions included, "What kind of animal would this person be?" "What kind of plant?" "What kind of wrapping paper?" and so on.

The question did not refer to the type of animal or plant or wrapping paper the person liked but, rather, what characteristics the person shared with the animal or plant or wrapping paper.

Manga employs these sorts of comparisons consistently and naturally;  animals are the default analogy. Although characters are most often compared to cats and dogs, they are also compared to bears, rabbits, even tigers.

In Apple & Honey: His Rose-Colored Life, Natsuki compares Komano to a cat AND to a dog. In Honey Darling, the main protagonist not only finds and cares for an (actual) adorable little cat but has the personality of one (he compares his roommate, the veterinarian, to a bear). And in Rabbit Man, Tiger Man (see below), the entire point of the characters is that one is a rabbit (the Doc) and one is a tiger (Yakuza-san). Can a rabbit and tiger get along?

Hilariously, the bonus story at the end of otherwise serious-minded Maiden Rose is an over-the-top farce where the main characters are re-imagined as a cat and a dog (see above). Forget Gnomeo & Juliet: when it comes to satires, looks like Animal Farm hits closer to home!

Generally speaking, throughout manga, cats/cat characters are quiet, clever, and luxury-minded while dogs/dog characters are extroverted, blunt, and friendly. Cats are quite popular in Japan though dogs have their own following. Being compared to any animal is a mark of having "arrived"!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wish-Fulfillment Is Not Always Wrong

"Yes Yes Yes No No No" scene from Singin' in the Rain
In a prior post, I argue that women do not automatically read romance literature out of wish-fulfillment, i.e. because they see themselves as the heroine of the piece and/or want to be swept away by Darcy or Mel Gibson or, to update myself a little, Josh Hutchinson or (still) Darcy.

Since the belief that women only read romance for this reason is almost always accompanied by a guffaw, smirk, or patronizing tone, I refuted the argument for being patronizing; women readers are as capable as anyone at reading something for other types of reasons, from philosophical to writerly.

In this post, however, I defend the idea of reading for wish-fulfillment. Although it often gets mocked, it is a perfectly respectable reason to read.

I argue in my thesis that many readers engage in a synthesis of "using" and "receiving." I am borrowing C.S. Lewis's terms from An Experiment in Criticism, where he argues that "users" read for the message or the personal application; he is understandably not a fan of "using," and I don't completely disagree. I saw plenty of "using" during my years as a student: people reading great literature in order to find evidence for their socio-politico-eonomico theories. One doesn't need great literature to do that kind of thing. I can do it with a cereal box.

My contribution to Middle Earth fan fiction: a
continuation of Tolkien's map.
C.S. Lewis uses the second term, "receiving," to refer to readers allowing themselves to be swept away by a poem or short story or novel or play. They don't judge the work until they have fully experienced it.

In my thesis, I suggest a third road that combines "using" and "receiving." My point was/is that people have a creative instinct or urge (a theory that Steven Johnson defends in his latest book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World), even if they aren't "creative" in the painting-pictures-writing-books-spouting-poetry sense. In fact, the desire to "make" can be as basic as "I want to make a good birthday party" or "I want to make a decent filing system." Like Johnson, I suggest that this desire has as much weight (if not more) than power and money. (And is the basic reason why theories like Marxism that ignore community involvement and personal investment so grossly misread people and fall short of even stock-market-valid prophetic outcomes.)

The desire to exercise their creative impulses means that while people want to get swept away by Middle Earth or Asimov's robots or Ahab's Pequod, they also want to imagine themselves inside those worlds. Or at least imagine that world as a real experience. It's the same reason that shows like 1900 House were so popular yet failed--the capacity for humans to imagine an experience outweighs any reality (show).

When I watched my brothers and their friends play
Dungeons & Dragons, it was the pewter figurines
that enthralled me. The game itself was too much like Risk,
which meant it was boring, not corrupting.
The latter issue is the problem--and the reason that people guffaw at wish-fulfillment. Wanting-to-be-part-of-the-romance immediately conjures up images of women (mostly) and men (too) investing themselves in a world to the point where they cease to pay their bills or feed the dog--or, to put this in social terms, date real people or apply for real jobs.

And sure, that can happen. But people who do that stuff don't need literature, popular or "great", to pull it off. Whether they retreat to an created world for escapism or some other reason, that world to is no more likely by itself to engender a negative outcome than Dungeons & Dragons was to produce psychopaths (I grew up around Dungeons & Dragons players--they all turned out fine).

As a kid, I was obsessed with Star Wars and my striped
shirt. Neither did me any damage, although I literally
unraveled the striped shirt--unfortunately.
Besides which, beyond the kind of obsession that involves people locking themselves in a room with a media system that plays Avatar over and over and over (or listening to radio pundits rant about politics over and over and over), a little obsession is by no means an unhealthy, unproductive, or problematic thing.

I think the issue comes down to semantics. The truth is obsessive nitpicking of great literature in order to produce boring socio-politco-economico theories can be just (if not more) limiting than writing fan fiction.

But writing a "treatise" or "exploring the juxtaposition of ideological factors in The Scarlet Letter" sounds better than "I wrote some fan fiction about a character who joins the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings"(see above).

Truth: In the long run, the fan fiction will prove more satisfying and more productive. It is always better to create than destroy.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Collection Review: Fake

Fake by Sanami Matoh is the first yaoi series that I read--if one discounts Descendants of Darkness (which many critics do, placing it in the "too complicated to label" genre).

I believe that I read the first volume through the local library system, which owns nearly all of Gravitation, a series I quickly lost patience with. Memory being what it is, it is possible that I initially Interlibrary-loaned the first 6 volumes (I know I had to order the 7th from Amazon--I then worked backwards to collect them all). 

I was immediately enchanted. I love police procedurals, for one thing (Blue Bloods, The Closer, Law & Order). The series is also exceptionally well-translated; I'm convinced that the translator, Nan Rymer is also a Law & Order fan. The slang, interoffice grumblings, in-office arguments, use of expletives and contemporary allusions are entirely appropriate to the genre and to Law & Order specifically. (I have elsewhere compared Dee to Mike Logan from original Law & Order. Ryo, on the other hand, is the archetypal dreamy hero.)

Dee in Mike Logan-mode
In some ways, Fake was an entirely appropriate introduction to yaoi: the high jinks, ADHD ongoing action, the entire lack of reality despite the realistic setting: everyone in the police department is completely blithe about Dee and J.J.'s sexuality. Eh, so they're bi and gay, hey, who cares?! FYI: The series is set in 1996, not the distant future.

In some ways, reading Fake first was a little misleading. I had no idea until much later that having Dee and Ryo be tall, obviously masculine, and equally aggressive (cop-wise) was in any way unusual for yaoi, especially yaoi in 1996. Dee is the pursuer while Ryo is the pursued--but again, I didn't realize until much later that their seme/uke roles are quite unlike those in much other yaoi. Dee is always trying to kiss Ryo but there is no non-con, and he accepts Ryo's apparent disinterest with grace and surprising maturity (this is Dee we're talking about). As for Ryo, he isn't a straight man falling in love against his will with another guy. He's a gay man coming to terms with being gay.

I had no idea that any of this was outside-the-box. All I cared about, then and now, was the stories and character development. Each volume has several "cases" from a serial bomber to several serial killers to a couple of drug lords. Each case is well-plotted. There's an overarching plot with a sweet resolution. As for character development, I discuss Dee and Ryo here.

The series does end a tad abruptly. Matoh had clearly decided that she needed to move on to a new project. After all, the panels are densely packed with illustration: the series (of 7 volumes) must have involved a great deal of work.

Matoh's art changed slightly later on--I'll discuss this when I get to Until the Full Moon. For now, I will state that Matoh continues to represent for me the powerful enchantment of art-in-motion (see post about Good Manga Art).

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Debating Theories About Yaoi

I have to take issue with an answer by Justin Servakis.

Actually, to be fair, I'm taking issue with Justin Servakis's entirely objective summary of theories as to why women read yaoi. So I'm actually taking issue with the theorists.

In answer to the question, "Why do so many male characters with male lovers in yaoi claim to be straight?" he summarizes several possibilities, including the following:
One of the prevailing theories is that it's a safe way for women to think about love and sex without having to deal with any of the baggage that can happen with a heterosexual arrangement -- making yourself vulnerable to a guy can be kind of scary to women, after all. To go with that theory, the fantasy of a straight guy ending up making himself vulnerable to another guy is the ultimate in approachability for a female viewer: still potentially interested in someone like them, but having this dalliance with another guy right now and therefore the reader is not on the radar [my emphasis].
I think there is some truth to the first part of this theory--after all, readers certainly imagine themselves into all kinds of narratives as "hey, what if this were me?" propositions. It would be pointless for me to argue otherwise.

What bothers me is the condescension embedded in these theories, a common occurrence when any group of people start pontificating about so-called "women's" fiction. A man can "find himself" in a story and all that happens to him is that he goes on Charlie Rose, stares at his naval, and pontificates about his inward journey. No one assumes that his subjective response is the result of wish-fulfillment but rather that his deep philosophical insights regarding his subjective response give him some kind of right to preachify about economics or politics.

The concept of fate attends the one-and-only. But it
isn't helpless fate. In sci-fi Blue Sheep Reverie, Kai
exhibits maturity when he accepts his fate as
Lahti's love and Maria/Bihann's advocate.
Okay, women in the literary world do that too--but it seems more culturally acceptable for a man to do it and only barely culturally acceptable for anyone to do it about romance.

Again, women get an especially hard time here--sure, some women read Pride & Prejudice because they imagine themselves as Elizabeth, the object of Darcy's affection (and there's nothing wrong with that--as I'll discuss in a later post). The problem with assuming that women read romance primarily for the sake of wish-fulfillment is (1) it falls into the "knee-jerk response" category of theorists' pontifications; (2) it is usually occupied by either a guffaw (oooh, you know women!) or a pat-on-the-back (pathetic women need some release from their patriarchal-ridden lives).

In a later post, I will question whether wish-fulfillment is such a silly, stupid thing. In terms of this post, I specifically question the idea that women read yaoi because the straight guy in yaoi is still potentially interested in someone like [them] but [is] having this dalliance with another guy right now.

To believe that is to utterly undermine the basic premise of all yaoi, a great deal of shojo, a wide swath of Japanese literature, not to mention much of the great literature of several continents stretching back thousands of years.

The basic premise of yaoi (with a few exceptions) is NOT that the straight guy is experimenting with a guy and will eventually go back to being straight. The basic premise is that everyone has a one and only and recognizing that one and only transcends everything from orientation and gender to age and occasionally, in Japanese manga at least, blood relations.

It's the type of idea that one debates as a teen, apparently grows out of it, yet still secretly yearns for--and if you doubt me, try reading, oh, anything, from the Medieval era. Or Ancient Greece. Or Ancient Egypt.  Or, for that matter, the Bible.

Setting aside the nuttiness of anyone actually wanting to be in a relationship with Asami (see first panel), to assume that any man, woman, or pet could replace Asami or Akihito in their fated relationship misses the point. The point: He came for him! The satisfying pay-off of Asami rescuing Akihito (who was on his way to rescuing himself) is not honestly all that different from the Powell-McClane scene at the end of Die Hard. And sure, we all want someone to come from us--that doesn't mean we want to mess up THIS relationship. (After all, if the relationship got messed up by a third party, it would cease to be the relationship that attracts us readers in the first place.)

The existence of the one-and-only can be serious, touching, highly romantic, sweet, or downright silly. There's a hilarious scene in Kubaki by Yukari Hashida in which the main character, who promised to love his vassal in the next life, returns to the next life as a teen who believes, temporarily, that his vassal has returned as, for lack of a better phrase, an "old fart." He is not entirely sure if he can overcome his reservations. Luckily for the story, his vassal shows up as a college-age young man who has not changed substantially in looks or personality.

The one-and-only is so powerful, in part, because it changes the focus of the plot from "Will they get together?" to "How will they work out their relationship?" Even in manga such as What Did You Eat Yesterday?--the most contemporary and realistic of the manga I read and one in which both characters are frankly gay--the characters' relationship is a "given." Yaoi is not "revolving door" romance (think Ross & Rachel from Friends) in which the characters date, cheat, get together, oops, nope, break up again.  Yaoi is about being together.

I suggest that being together is the reason that yaoi readership has not apparently diminished all that much in the 21st century, even as its characters are increasingly being identified as simply bi or gay without any qualification. Women like to read about relationships working. They also like to believe in the security of a one-and-only.

A lot of guys do too. Only it's not as cool for a guy to admit it.