Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Collection Review: Until the Full Moon

Until the Full Moon and @ the Full Moon take me back to Sanami Matoh (Fake). I read them because of Fake. Matoh has also written a number of fantasy manga full of high jinks and ADHD characters. These latter manga are cute but rather too frantic for my tastes. Fake has its own moments of over-the-top antics and scenarios, but it is grounded in the "case" structure. There are also plenty of reflective moments in Fake, especially for the series' couple.

Until the Full Moon and its sequel @ the Full Moon fall between Fake and Matoh's more high energy manga. The premise is delightful (and common to Japanese manga): a character, Marlo, is male except during the full moon when he becomes female. His change makes it possible for his family to marry him to his childhood friend, David, who is totally fine with the whole wacky world of Marlo (and happens to love both male and female Marlo equally although the ostensibly shojo manga is quite coy about the sexual relationship between them and implies at the end that Marlo will now be female most of the time and only male during the full moon, which will make having a baby possible since Marlo can hide during the full moon to stay female).

The manga is fun, mostly due to Marlo's female persona; although entirely female and downright cute, she is still rather tomboyish. Taken together, she/he is absolutely darling. The first volume has a stronger set of stories and the first set (Until the Full Moon) is better plotted than the second (@ the Full Moon), but both are engaging.

My favorite part is the short story at the end of Volume 1: the fairy tale explanation for Marlo's condition that takes place in a Stephen Sondheim-like past. It's sweetly romantic with a decent pay-off.

@ the Full Moon is fascinating because Matoh's art changes; the top and bottom image are from Until the Full Moon while the middle images are from the later @ the Full Moon. In one of her afterwords, Matoh argues that her art didn't change that much--it was always developing in a single direction. And I think she has a point. But it is noticeably different. I didn't care for the difference at first, not because I didn't like the art itself but because I'm such a huge admirer of Fake, which resembles her older style more than her recent one.

However, Matoh still manages to capture motion, which is a powerful and admirable skill for a mangaka.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Looks in Romance Manga

It has to be said--

In Library Wars, Kasahara's tallness--specifically her
being taller than her leading man--is a recurring motif. 
It is handled cutely--and Kasahara herself grows to
appreciate her height. Dojo never minded.
A great deal has and is and will be written about how society and the media judge people's looks. Some of my students, usually young women, write about the pressure of having to live up to an outside, media-enforced standard--and they are often the most classically pretty and coifed of all my students.

A common trope in romance (and unfortunately in reality) is when a potential suitor decides to "nobly" sacrifice his dream of a beautiful woman hanging on his every word by "settling" for a smart, plain girl. The potential suitor as well as the plain girl's family, friends (and presumably her hamsters) then expect her to be profoundly grateful, even indebted to him, for his choice. Even if he himself is totally ordinary looking. And even if he himself is so tedious it makes her brain want to die.

Mr. Collins is alive and well. 

American romance struggles with this issue. Heroines are sometimes beautiful, sometimes plain, sometimes average, sometimes cute, sometimes unusual. Sometimes, as in Persuasion, beauty is in the eye of beholder (Wentworth is convinced at the end that he never said anything disparaging about Anne's looks). Sometimes, as in The Grand Sophy, Sophy's extroverted hutzpah accompanied by handsome looks make such a strong and disarming first impression that issues of looks rarely enter the story (kudos to Heyer--this approach is somewhat unusual). Sometimes, as in Jane Eyre, looks are not supposed to be the point (since Rochester is supposed to be "not handsome" and Jane is supposed to be "plain") yet keep cropping up as Rochester and Jane compare themselves against possible rivals.

And the list goes on.

Ukes in Yugi Yamada's manga are often
quite gentle looking. Sometimes they are
are actually more like Seyun (see below)
but Shoichi  is as gentle as he looks.
The issues never truly fade, no matter how "advanced" the writer (in fact, many times, a progressive writer is more self-conscious, dwelling continually on looks rather than simply describing everybody as beautiful and moving on). And although male looks are customarily raised, the issues almost always revolve around the woman's sense of indebtedness. If she is plain, then she should be grateful for being noticed (or work really really hard to be "unique" and "nice" so the universe will forgive her for being plain). If she is beautiful, she should be grateful to the man who looks beyond her beauty and judges her for the sake of her inner self.

It's the sort of thing that makes one understand why teenage girls go all Gothy and read depressing literature about people falling out of buildings or killing everybody at the prom.

My problem: I like romances. I'm also enough of a realist to know that human beings being what they are, looks have and are and will be common discussion fodder, not only in the media but in literature and art (I draw my own personal line at gossip based on comparative statements).

Seyun is a sweet-faced uke who fights
like a demon. The disparity is part
of the plot/relationship.
Japanese romance is no different in this regard. Looks are discussed! What makes manga slightly more appealing is that the emphasis is not on the indebtedness of the plain person but, oddly enough, on the conspicuousness of the good-looking person.

For instance, male characters in yaoi (with some exceptions) are often handsome, tall, and reserved (Darcy all over the place). These traits are mentioned. However, at the back of the comments is the soft implication that standing out for being so handsome is nice and all but couldn't it be kind of, well, show off-y?

The same is true for beautiful girls in shojo. Is it really such a good thing?

That is, the cultural default isn't handsomeness. The cultural default is being ordinary. The beautiful girl and handsome guy are certainly the objects of attention (squeals and adoration) but that attention can backfire.

Ordinary people don't have to apologize for being ordinary, which seems, considering the number of ordinary people in the world, a far more civilized approach than not.

Rivals will comment on Akihito not being as classically handsome
as Asami, but Akihito is more concerned with Asami's
nutty lifestyle than his looks. He dismisses the rivals as
jealous and short-sighted--their preoccupation
with looks/appearance is a sign of their
literal inability to function in society.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree, Coincidences in Fiction, and Human Behavior

Snow White should have asked more questions:
"Where exactly does that apple come from?"
I apply the same rule to "suspension of disbelief" as the courts do to "fruit of the poisonous tree."

Law & Order 101: the detectives discover evidence based on an illegal search warrant; the judge determines that since the warrant was illegal, anything coming from the warrant is also illegal.

BUT if the detectives/lawyers can prove that they would have come upon that evidence in a different, legal way, the evidence is allowed to stand. It is no longer "fruit of the poisonous tree."

I apply the same caveat to plot points that rely on coincidence, last minute revelations, or random miscommunications. The coincidence, last minute revelation, or random miscommunication leads to the murderer being caught, the hero/heroine being saved or the lovers miraculously changing their minds and not getting on the boat.

And I roll my eyes. Unless I decide that the outcome would have occurred anyway. Then, I let it go.

In Only the Ring Finger Knows, Wataru and Kazuki fall out of communication while Kazuki is in New York because Kazuki's friend's medical condition worsens; Kazuki then gets into a minor car accident and has to go to the hospital for X-Rays; then Kazuki assumes he'll have time to call Wataru about why he mailed back his ring but he ends up having to return to the hospital, etc. etc.

Kind of ridiculous. But the point is to highlight the tension that Wataru and Kazuki, an 18 and 19-year-old,  feel after being away from each other for so long and to point out the understandable fears and assumptions that a couple can develop apart. It is actually quite believable, however seemingly manufactured.

Likewise, Steel Lahti in Blue Sheep Reverie coincidentally taking Kai as his lover--before realizing that Kai has an ulterior motive--seems a bit daft until one realizes that Lahti already knew who Kai was (from Shiki) and was willing to run the not-too-terrible risk of keeping him close in order to discover Kai's intent (he runs a similar risk later with Salir--so his behavior is consistent).

Sometimes, when a possible plot point seems too outrageous--but I like the story anyway--I simply shorten the time frame in my head. So yes, okay, it is kind of difficult to believe that it would take over a year for someone to discover that Mizuki of Hana-Kimi is a girl in a rough and tumble boys' school. Still, women have passed as men before and if one simply decides that everything happened in about four months . . .

And sometimes--if I REALLY like the story--I just decide that the whole thing is taking place in some alternate universe where ordinary rules of probability apply differently. But not because the whole thing is a dream. Some rules have to apply; otherwise the story ceases to be fun at all.

See Votaries for non-manga examples.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What Makes a Good Manga Short Story Continued . . .

Of course Sam was going to return at the end of
"Scarecrow"--it's still satisfying to see him do it.
Reasons 1 and 2 are discussed in the prior post.

3. There is a decent pay-off.

Artsy types may try to convince readers that nothing needs to end because life doesn't end and resolutions are too simplistic, blah blah blah. I tried to argue that myself at one point.

Ignore them.

A good narrative has a good pay-off. A great narrative has a great pay-off.

Great pay-off does not mean "surprise". Sometimes, the surprise pay-off does work. Agatha Christie knocked that type of ending (you thought the murderer was X but really it was Z) out of the park.

But surprise for the sake of surprise can get irritating after awhile. It truly is okay to give the reader/viewer the expected ending--the couple runs towards each other with hands outstretched; the child is returned to his or her parents; the underdog wins the fight/gets the good grade/finds a new planet; Sam and Dean get back together . . .

Readers and viewers love this stuff! I love this stuff! I like it even more when it makes sense, dovetails with previous information, delivers that warm glow of "a ha" or "I knew it!" or "thank goodness."

*Spoiler.* Regarding light novels, the end of S makes perfect sense, specifically Godou's confession. Yeah, sure, we all knew he was responsible for Shiiba's sister's death. However, the way in which he acknowledges it and how that information matches what we previously learned about the character--is perfect.

With manga short stories, the rather odd but engaging "When 'Lie' is Read 'T-r-u-t-h'" at the end of Rabbit Man, Tiger Man, Volume 1--in which the action switches back to the young prodigy imagining his (accurate) future with his mentor--delivers a cute, more sweet than bitter twist. The middle story to Wild Rock--in my opinion, a far better story than the volume's title story--is Romeo and Juliet for grown-ups. The protagonists don't die; they return to their clans and take up their roles as chiefs. While the short story "That's All From Me" by Yugi Yamada, which revolves around the game Go, shows us two protagonists acknowledging their attraction in a typically roundabout way (typical for the protagonists, that is).

A powerful short story is like a piece of exceptionally good chocolate--it may not be as filling or as reliable as a full Hershey's Bar (and I love Hershey's). But it delivers a wallop of memorable "wow" satisfaction.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Short Stories Again: What Make a Good Short Manga Story

Wataru overhears a confession. For honorific-purists like
myself, Tachibana is really saying Kuzuki-san or
Kazuki-sensei. She's an underclassman.
Like the powerful essay or newspaper article, strong short stories are harder to perfect than novels--hence, the enormous variety. I recently purchased two cheap short story manga collections. Although neither of them lived up to my highest expectations, one was clearly better than the other. Even within the same manga, the stories widely varied.

In a previous post, I reflected on what makes a poor short story and concluded that while a good short story can have only a premise, a poor short story always has only a premise.

Even a narrative arc, however, doesn't guarantee a good story. 

So what makes a good manga short story?

1. The characters' behavior evolves organically.

In a good short story, the characters behave naturally to their personality types. The story's next step is there because that's how the character would behave, not because it is time for the next step to occur.

A typical event in Japanese manga/light novels is the confession, kokuhaku (告白)--whereby one character professes feelings of love for the other. This often occurs even when there is no surety that the confession will be received or returned. (It is good manners to at least listen.)

In poor short stories, the confession is treated as a solution in and of itself. Hey, the character made a confession: matter is closed. In the better short stories, the confession is followed by reflection and explanation; sometimes a period of time passes before acceptance.

Instant fixes are rarely organic--and never believable.

2. The characters are memorable.

A "type" or one-dimensional character is not a problem. Yes, it helps if the character has somewhat  memorable characteristics. I remember the character who continually falls in love with eyeglass-wearing, stocky news anchors, simply because it's cute and funny. And I remember the character who got lost in a snow storm.

However, it even better if a character's memorability is grounded in something more basic, like personality. I always remember Yugi Yamada's short story characters (it helps that they have a tendency to show up in other short stories and in full manga narratives). Yamada's Naoki Suzuki is funny, self-effacing, deliberately provocative (outside of his personal life), ostentatiously "flaming," slightly sarcastic though more kind than cruel . . . and so on.

Still, types are okay--so long as they are recognizable--as Red Letter Media points out in his trenchant criticism of Star Wars I (skip forward to 6:28)

Reason 3 to follow . . .

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Dysfunctions Continued

In the prior post, I address 2 elements that separate "oh my gosh, they so need to break up!" dysfunctional relationships from workable dysfunctional relationships in manga and light novels (in a later post on Votaries, I'll address how #3 below works with Agatha Christie).

When the dysfunctional relationship works . . .

1. The narrator is likable, even if supposedly passive.
2. The narrator is self-aware

3. The couple's problems are less soap opera and more everyday reality.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Guilty is that it revolves around a publishing firm. The problems are so basic and local, they ground the entire series in reality. Yes, okay, Hodaka is the typical overly rich, overly aloof, overly everything romantic hero (think Darcy taken to the nth degree). But the issues--you owe me another book, the mail service lost the manuscript, I work with more writers than just you, etc.--are entirely commonplace and relatable.

Cold Fever is pure soap opera but has such a fascinating premise that I wanted to enjoy it: Toru suffers amnesia and becomes one type of person; he then loses his amnesia and reverts to the person he was before: memory as personality. Will the relationship survive?

Amnesia stories of this type have no scientific merit (see post on Votaries) although the connection between memory and personality does. Nonetheless, I find them utterly fascinating artistically anyway since they usually revolve around determining the "self"--What makes us us?

And the action of Cold Fever--Toru leaving one type of work for another--is entirely plausible.

Unfortunately, the soap opera revelations (I remember my horrible past now!) are way too charged to leave me feeling comfortable. The same holds true for Sweet Admiration by Yuuki Kosaka. I reached a Tess of the D'Urbervilles' rolling-of-the-eyes state of mind with Sweet Admiration and had to skim the end.

Oddly enough, the excellent series S by Saki Aida, provides various angsty motivations for many of its characters. However, they come across as less Tess and more Hamlet or MacBeth--less "it just keeps getting worse!" and more "tragic flaws to overcome."

The background angst in S also works thematically. The problem with pure soap opera is a mistake made by so many romance writers: that great love can be proved by GREAT, BIG, AWFUL PROBLEMS. Not so. Characters who overcome tragic pasts in order to deal with ordinary life are far more interesting romantically than characters who have to keep climbing that hill in order to prove how noble and worthy of love they are. The first possibility proves that the characters are strong and interesting; the second proves that some people don't know when to walk away.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Dysfunctions Again

Fictional (and real) relationships that revolve around power inequities can function constructively; they can also leave the reader thinking, "That relationship will never work" or "That relationship shouldn't work."

Subjectivity definitely comes into play. Consequently, The Guilty by Katsura Izumi--which includes a relationship based on supposed domination--bothers me far less than Narise Konohara's Don't Tell Mama and Cold Sleep series, specifically Cold Fever, which includes one of the most aloof, submissive ukes on record.

Konohara is a decent psychologist. She sells the plausibility of her novels' relationships. The result is not "That relationship will never work" but, rather, "Yikes!!!!"

What separates a "well, that dynamic is problematic but that couple still has a future" relationship from a "Yikes!" relationship? Here are some possibilities:

1. The narrator is likable, even if supposedly passive.

Konahara, interestingly enough, tends to narrate from the seme (dominant character) perspective--and since her semes are usually rather disturbed, overwhelmingly needy and controlling individuals, reading her novels is rather like reading Hamlet from Claudius's perspective. Not a terrible idea, mind you. And not even artistically invalid. But rather troubling. Since she is a good writer, I always try to plow through her stuff. I gave up with Cold Fever--it included way too many chapters of disturbed, unhappy guy (shoot, I'd pick up Thomas Hardy or depressing French literature if I wanted to read that stuff). I much prefer her short "extra" at the end from the uke's point of view. 

The Guilty series, in comparison, is narrated almost entirely from Toya's point of view. He is ostensibly the uke. Like Taki of Maiden Rose, however, he exercises far more control than even he realizes. In addition, since the novels are from his point of view, the reader gets to see him working through his uncertainties and trepidations. This is a very different experience from feeling that a character is being forced/overwhelmed into a relationship.

2. The narrator is self-aware.

Truth: people aren't always all that self-aware. But it helps if they are. The Guilty series is rather light-weight--lots of snogging to a little bit of psychology (comparatively speaking). Yet, the psychology is entirely believable and well-conveyed as Toya struggles with his assumptions about the relationship and ponders his misreadings of Hodaka (see related post).

Toru of Cold Fever, on the other hand, never seems to know exactly why he is behaving the way that he does--which might actually be more realistic but doesn't make him more likable.

A common thread with romance novels is a narrator who is self-aware (to a point) but throws away that self-awareness/self-respect for the sake of love. Toya almost falls into this category but skirts the edge by walking away when he gets really miffed.

Those narrators--usually ukes--who will do anything for love leave me cold. I'm forced to the conclusion that such characters don't care if their partners have the morals of a sloth or the brains of a turnip. People who do anything for luuuuv will luuuuv anyone.

This is miles away from Jane Austen's Elizabeth who only falls for Darcy absolutely when she learns of his good character.

Interestingly, in the series S, when the protagonist Shiiba tries to argue to his lover that he is that type of guy (I'll do anything for love), his lover reminds him gently that actually, no, no, he isn't--he doesn't truly want to give up his job for the sake of the relationship; he just thinks he does.

To be continued . . .