Sunday, March 19, 2017

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Reading Culture in Japan

Kate: Critics of contemporary culture often bemoan the decline of novel reading (they also often seem to be disgruntled academics whose tomes don’t sell). How does reading fare in Japan? Do books sell?
Eugene: Japanese bookstores sell on consignment (returns are allowed), and books are sold under a resale price maintenance (RPM) system that disallows discounting. Online retailers like Amazon compete on the convenience of "one-stop shopping," huge inventories, and free shipping.

Family reunion--yup, everybody's reading.
That makes it possible for small and niche bookstores to compete. Japan's high population density makes distribution more efficient. And I do think public transportation--along with a long literary culture and high literacy rates--is key in fostering "disposable" reading habits. If the ride might be long, grab an easy read.

(Like the habit we and our siblings had growing up of always carrying a book with us whenever
we went somewhere "just in case" we found ourselves stuck somewhere with nothing to do. The horror!)

The A6 format is truly pocked-sized, with lightweight but durable paper and flexible spines. A big bestselling novel like Daughter of the Murakami Pirates was initially released in two volumes of 474 and 499 pages at 1,728 yen ($15) each. The mass-market paperback was released in four A6 volumes of around 350 pages and 680 yen ($6) each.

I suspect as well that the doujinshi culture helps create a printing industry adept at doing economical short runs. Along with a devoted fan base willing to spend money on their hobby.

Seriously, think of the economic impact of almost completely eliminating the automobile from the teen to thirty-something budgetary balance sheet. Which just happens to overlap with the otaku demographic.

And yet, while CDs and DVDs are (at least) two to three times more expensive in Japan, books are often less expensive, manga compilations being half what you'd pay for a translation in the U.S. In other words, the "gateway drugs"--manga and light novels--are always affordable.
Kate: How about downloading books--is the idea of "Kindle" as prevalent in Japan as it appears to be in the United States?
Eugene: Amazon is pushing the Kindle platform hard in Japan. Amazon competitors like Honto have their own ebook publishing platforms. But Japan has been slow to embrace digital media. Distribution is still about pushing physical products. Tower Records went bankrupt in the U.S. It is thriving in Japan: "Globally, 39 percent of all music sales are physical CDs and vinyl, but in Japan the figure is double that."

When it comes to CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray, distributors are loath to give up their sky-high profit margins. The convenience factor is not as critical a variable given Japan's high urban population density and resale price maintenance laws that make possible a "nation of shopkeepers" (Adam Smith said it first). And Japanese seem to like collecting physical "stuff" (that's easy to store), not just information.
A manga shelf--with a little bit of Star Wars at the end.

The typical scene of a teenager's bedroom includes a bookcase with thirty volumes of his favorite manga neatly lined up in rows.

Books, on the other hand, aren't expected to deliver those fat profit margins, and they've always had competition from used bookstores. Manga marketing begins with loss-leading. I'm always getting emails from Honto pushing the latest free e-manga: give away the first volume, sell the rest. Plus, once a manga is typeset, it is relatively easy to convert to electronic format.

Shopping online is rapidly growing in popularity in Japan and so will electronic publishing. But in Japan it is a lagging indicator.
Kate: Light novels don't appear to have the same negative status as "grocery store paperbacks" do in the U.S. Is this true? Why?
Eugene: To start with, the printing quality of light novels is pretty darn high. I have a light novel I bought in 1989 for 360 yen (about $3.25). The paper has faded a bit, but the full-color wraparound dust cover and the spine are in perfect condition.

In Japan, the rift between "literature" and "stories for the masses," as Dean Wesley Smith puts it, never really developed. Sure, there are literary snobs but publishers see no point in surrendering to those pretensions. Publishers make a point of publishing and licensing just about everything that shows potential (see the comparison to commercial television production above).

Daughter manga
Along with the mass market paperback, Daughter of the Murakami Pirates was also released in a manga version. Someday there will likely be an anime and a live-action historical drama. The Moribito series recently added a high-budget (for Japanese television) live-action series to its publishing arc (light novels, manga, and anime).

The long-running Rurouni Kenshin manga series, first published in 1994, added a trilogy of live-action films in 2012-2014, adding to a catalog that includes an anime series, several anime movies, and light novels.

Even the radio drama (distributed on CD) remains a viable medium for popular culture in Japan.

Japan actually figured out how to make literacy "cool" and to hook kids on reading, from elevating calligraphy to a pop culture art form (see Barakamon), to creating the visual novel video game format that requires more reading than most novels, to publishing school textbooks that look more like manga rather than the heavy, ponderous boat anchors used in American schools.
Kate: Along the same lines, manga appears to have never had the same negative status that "comic books" has/had in the United States. When "comic books" get serious treatment in the U.S. they become "graphic novels" but manga have always been manga. Why?
Eugene: Back in the 1950s, the comic book panic briefly swept over Japan too. Writing then for the short-lived rental book market, horror manga artist Shigeru Mizuki briefly fell victim to it. Fortunately for him, as the "rental library" business dried up, so did the protests. Or everybody was too busy growing the GDP at double-digits to care.

Once his manga found a wider audience in the 1960s and made their way to television, his reputation was never in doubt, and he became one of the grand old deans of Japanese popular culture.

Every now and then, a manga artist will "go too far" (meaning WAY further than what would be acceptable in the U.S., especially for a teen audience) and get push-back from politicians and social activist types. But publishers are quick to respond and pull back just far enough to make everybody happy. It rarely turns into a sweeping indictment that sticks.

Part of this may the attitude that it doesn't matter what the kids are reading as long as they are reading.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the Japan's reading culture better than the visual novel. It's the oldest video game format in Japan. A classic visual novel like Clannad has over a million words of text in all its branches, and most contain at least in the high five figures.

Clannad clip: It may be a video but it has lots of words!
No matter what the language--
The visual novel is the "interactive novel" that American prognosticators are always promising is going to be the next big thing in e-publishing. And never is. While in Japan the visual novel has been a big thing in e-publishing for three decades.
Kate: Returning to light novels, will they ever find a home in the U.S.? To the same degree as manga?
Eugene: As mentioned previously, the success of the visual novel genre in Japan does point to profound differences in the "reading culture."

Nevertheless, I think that kids who grow up reading R.L. Stein and K. A. Applegate and Nancy Drew, the equivalent of light novel series, would read light novels if they could find titles in the genres they like.

The problem is building a critical mass of supply when current demand doesn't justify the investment by a publisher big enough to negotiate the licensing agreements. That critical mass has been achieved with manga and anime (it only took a quarter century).

With manga, the American publisher can work from the original print-ready PDFs, erase the speech bubbles and type in the English. A novel has to typeset from scratch. On current budgets, there is never enough editing (and often there is barely any).

A light novel that finds the right audience can do just as well as any other "long tail" genre novel, which is not all that great in any case. It's a market segment that needs to be husbanded in the short-to-medium term and shielded from the blockbuster mentality.

"Science fiction" as a genre is itself "long tail," making up about five percent of the publishing market. The "light novel" would be a fraction of that. These are the small numbers we're talking about.

Yen Press is co-owned by Kadokawa and Hachette, Kadokawa is the majority owner, so they have a vested interest in the long term. That bodes well for the future.

I don't think the light novel will ever be as successful as the manga, but it should be able to find a niche if given enough time to grow its audience and become self-sustaining. Along the way, a few break-through titles sure would help.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Light Novel Publishing in Japan

As with Interview with a Translator, Part 1, these posts will appear first on Romance & Manga and then on Votaries of Horror, my main blog. There will be six posts total.

Eugene, the translator, is a votary of Japanese literature, art, and contemporary culture as well as a writer of fiction. More of his thoughts can be found on his website and blog.

Part 2 delves into the world of light novels, Japan's reading culture and, of course, more translation challenges.

Kate: What is a light novel? Does its designation depend on subject matter or word count? If word count, why are U.S. publishers so obsessed with 100,000 words or more when the light novel clearly does well in Japan?
Light novel equivalent.
Eugene: The "light novel" is a mass market novella format in Japan, a paperback of around 40,000 words, most often printed in the A6 (4x6 inch) format. The content is genre fiction, with a dozen or so pen and ink illustrations. Furigana are included to help with the pronunciation of difficult kanji.
The equivalent of the light novel used to be a thing in American publishing too. Back in the day they were called the "pulps," after the cheap paper they were printed on. And like the pulps, light novels can be diamonds in the rough and they also can be barely good enough to pass muster. 
Dean Wesley Smith explains on his website about how the paperback novel grew from true "pocket-size" into a doorstop:
"Publishers forced writers to write longer books, not to make the books better, but to justify their need to raise book prices because of other costs. (Paper and printing were cheap, so most of the extra costs were in overhead and could be made up with just fatter books.)"
Kate: Why is the publishing industry in Japan willing to play for supposedly lower stakes?
Eugene: An established Japanese publishing firm was likely founded by a guy who started from literally nothing after the war. Most of Japan's 3,700 publishing companies are privately-held companies with less than 10 employees. Only 30 publishers have more than 1000 employees.
So keeping overhead low and spreading the costs (and risks) around is standard practice (true of Japan's movie industry too). There's no blockbuster mentality. If Your Name had made 30 million dollars instead of 300 million, everybody would have counted it a success.
This means publishers can throw just about anything against the wall to see if it sticks. In this respect, the manga and light novel resembles the Hollywood television pilot (on a much smaller scale). And it can be surprising what sticks, like this.
This is a mom.
The standard publishing contract in Japan is so standard (no advance and 10 percent of list price paid on publication) that agents usually aren't involved. Rarely to never will a Japanese publisher throw six or seven figures at an unknown who is going to be "the next big thing."
Of course, things get more complicated once the licensing deals begin. But unlike his American counterpart, the Japanese author retains most creative rights by default. And because there is no one big payday in the offing, licensing far and wide is standard practice.
Japanese publishers will publish periodicals out of the same offices, and use loss-leading manga magazines to "audition" series and artists. The cream of the crop become source material for light novels, anime, live-action television, movies, and even stage productions.
Kate: In one light novel series, the main character is an editor at a publishing company. The major author with whom he works has contracts at several different companies—this author produces one to two books per year for each company. Is this flexibility (a major author coasting between several companies) typical?
Eugene: According to Robert Whiting (author of baseball books like You Gotta Have Wa and The Chrysanthemum and Bat), most of the time a Japanese publisher will ask a writer to do a book "without a contract or an advance." Then when the book is published, "the author gets paid on books printed, not sold."
This is the opposite of how traditional U.S. publishers work. First, it means that Japanese publishers don't contractually lock down an author from the start. Second, it means they have more skin in the game once the book gets printed. A U.S. publisher can do a run of 100,000 books (and boast "100,000 books in print!"), get 50,000 returns, and pay a royalty on the 50,000 (a year later).
The Japanese publisher, by contrast, is down a 7-10 percent royalty right out of the gate. Returns can't be so easily shrugged off. However, shorter printing runs and supply more carefully matched to demand results in books going out of print faster (at least that's my experience with manga). And then you have to anxiously wait around for another printing or edition to come out.
Kate: How do Japanese writers get noticed?
Eugene: My sense is that there's a lot more going on at the grassroots level in Japanese publishing. Authors can start at zero in the doujinshi arena and build a fan base. Think of the way sports stars emerge from the gauntlet of high school and college sports. Once the professional teams get involved, they have a pretty good idea of who's worth recruiting.
One big sorting and recruiting tool are literary prizes. We tend to think of literary prizes as rewarding "Literature" (with a capital "L" because it's "high art" and it's "good for you"); or celebrating a "body of work" from a known and respected quantity (at least known to and respected by all the critics who "matter").
The two biggest literary awards in Japan are the biannual Akutagawa and Naoki prizes, the former for "the best serious literary story published in a newspaper or magazine by a new or rising author" and the latter for "the best work of popular literature in any format by a new, rising, or (reasonably young) established author."
Naoki Matayoshi
Kate: Are these awards more the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Literature or the Nebula? Or something even less hoity-toity?
Eugene: It does seem that the jurors try not to let too much pretentiousness govern their selections. Although, as in Always: Sunset on Third Street, a common writerly stereotype is the guy scribbling away in his hovel with high hopes of winning the Akutagawa prize while actually earning a living cranking out serial novels.
The serial novel is still going in Japan and many light novels start out that way.
The 2016 January Akutagawa prize was awarded to Naoki Matayoshi (no relation to the Naoki prize). He's a comedian, commentator, and occasional actor. Especially since winning the prize, he's been a regular on the chat and news show circuit. He hosts a weekly show about applied economics for NHK. He never attended college.
His biography is not terribly unusual for media intellectuals. In Japan, a diploma (the "Ivy Leagues" aside) is not a necessary credential for having smart things to say. (The protagonist in Hero passed the bar exam and became a public prosecutor without ever attending college or law school. Rare but possible.)
Daughter of the Murakami Pirates by Ryo Wada won the 2014 Japan Booksellers Yoshikawa Eiji prize for new writers, not for being "great literature" (nobody claims it is) but for being a great read. The Kodansha Manga Award has been awarded to hugely popular series like Ace of the Diamond and Attack on Titan.
As with college sports, in Japanese publishing there's the equivalent of a weekly MVP award and an annual Heisman for just about any genre in any medium. They serve a similar purpose: to reward up and coming talent, and to get the word out to the press and the public.
Kate: Why is it comparably more difficult to track down light novels in the U.S. than manga? Isn't manga harder to publish due to the art work? Is word count the reason light novels don't get translated more often?
One of the most popular yaoi light
novel series in the U.S., the later
volumes are far superior translations
to the earlier ones. Readers read
them anyway--but they complained.
Eugene: As far as books go, a light novel that finds the right audience can do just as well as any other "long tail" genre novel, which is not all that great. The term "manga," on the other hand, identifies it as a unique print and reading format. Expectations are met before the reading begins. A light novel is, at the end of the day, just another "book" among tens of thousands, and light novels have the additional expense of licensing fees to contend with on the balance sheet.
Along with Justin Sevakis, I also think that light novel adaptations have been slow to take off for the same reason visual novel adaptations have been slow to take off--all those words. 
Like American television producers, Japanese publishers try to cover every genre and demographic and hope that something catches fire. That includes, of course, chasing the latest trends.
The problem outside Japan is building a critical mass of supply when the still nascent demand doesn't justify the investment. That critical mass has been achieved with manga and anime (it only took a quarter century). It's tougher with a non-visual medium like traditional books.
The steepest cost in localizing a Japanese novel is the translation. A manga can be translated in a week or two, as opposed to a month or two (with no editing). With manga, the American publisher can work from the original print-ready PDFs, erase the speech bubbles and type in the English.
A novel has to be edited and typeset from scratch. On current budgets, there is never enough editing (and often there is barely any).
Good anime and manga can survive mediocre translations. Not so much novels. Especially when it precedes the manga, anime, and movie adaptations, the text has to stand on its own.
Coming next: Japan's Reading Culture!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Romantic Triangle

Close the Last Door: Nagai knows what his best decision is.
Romantic triangles are like mafia tales--people either love 'em or despise 'em.

When reading romances, it is almost impossible to avoid minor triangles--the ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend or outside interested party who threatens to break up our favorite couple. These minor triangles can be handled badly (every teen drama on television) or quite well (Season 6 of Bones). But they are notably inconsequential.

With a few exceptions, I avoid the type of triangle that runs the entire series/show/movie. The third party is only going to pose a continual threat if (1) he or she is crazy; (2) he or she invites one of the protagonists to stray.

The first possibility is discomforting. The second gets a little too close to the distasteful cheating plot. 

The exceptions prove the rule. The few ongoing triangle plots that I have found entertaining in manga include Close the Last Door, Allure, and Only the Ringer Finger Knows. And the reasons I can stand them illustrate the potential flaws buried within the triangle plot.
In Close the Front Door (see above panel), the protagonist is caught between an idol and a real, if fallible, boyfriend. There's no substitute for the real relationship, and he knows it. He recognizes that even should he win the idol (which becomes a possibility), the reasons that make the idol so attractive are precisely the reasons his relationship with the idol (as more than a friend) would ultimately prove unsuccessful. I am loved, and I love: why would I want to mess with that? best sums up his conclusion. The day-to-day successes of his real relationship provide an emotional haven--and resilience--that the fantasy relationship cannot. It isn't so much that he realizes, Guess I'll have to "settle." Rather, he realizes that he actually has gotten something better than what he had imagined for himself (rather like Leonard in Black Sun).

As someone who reads shojo and admires
flowing locks, I find this panel hilarious.

I had to read Allure several times to appreciate the underlying issue, and it is psychologically fascinating (see post about dysfunctional relationships): namely, the ex-girlfriend is actually quite controlling. She took on the caretaker role while Kai was blind, so much so that he finds himself, when sighted, carrying around an entire look/image that doesn't suit him and feels false. The ex- is not a bad person and will make another type of man a fine wife. Kai is simply not that guy. He can either remain someone he isn't or be someone he is.

Only the Ring Finger Knows comes closest to being unbearable, despite being well-written--so much so that I came up with an extended version that deals more conclusively with the interfering third party. The series is redeemed by Wataru being believably ill-prepared (due to youth and lack of experience) to counter the sophisticated countermoves of the third-party--right up until his forthright and honest nature cuts through all the bull.
My take-away: the triangle can work if the protagonist is intelligent and appreciates that "snatching" (as Dorothy Sayers would say) after illusive happiness will not automatically produce better results than dealing with life-as-is (again, Brennan and Booth from Bones are positive examples). The triangle can also work if the protagonist resolves the issue not by glumly remaining faithful (which is depressing for everyone) but finding happiness within small and precious moments.

In sum, a good protagonist is honest with him/herself and fair with others. Most importantly, a good protagonist is reasonably optimistic/forward thinking. A character who is constantly bemoaning the "grass that could be greener" and running after the first stray fancy that might satisfy his or her ego may make an interesting character; he or she will fail as a protagonist worth investing in.

Of course, it is even better when there is no contest--Jamal
pours scorn on the idea of substitution in Black Sun.

Unfortunately, too many triangle plots involve self-pitying protagonists who employ justifications that the reader is supposed to consider defensible (since, after all, the protagonist is acting out of luuuuv). Such plots become frustrating, as in unbearable, when the triangle is presented as a mark of conquest or triumph for the protagonist, rather than a hurdle to be handled with finesse.

The "oh, I don't know which lover to choose! I guess I should waffle until circumstances force a decision!" mental framework speaks more to immaturity than successful personal growth.

I must say: I greatly admire Japanese manga and light novels regarding this trope; although the triangle crops up quite often (and can be as irritating as described above), characters are rarely let off the social-harmony hook. Stop making life difficult for others! is the underlying message. And it's a good one.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Workplaces and Plot

I comment in a prior post that manga (really, all fiction) works best when the main characters have jobs (one likely reason that Buffy went downhill after Buffy graduated high school was her character was far too realistic as a waffling, non-employed 19-year-old, and waffling, non-employed 19-year-olds are not exceptionally interesting).

Manga use workplaces in a variety of ways. 

The Workplace as a Useful Way for the Protagonists to Meet
Much yaoi and shojo revolves around salary(wo)men and their problems. The office environment becomes a useful source of obstacles but also a useful excuse for the protagonists to meet (followed by the useful obstacles).

However, as mentioned in the previous post, a vague office environment is not nearly as effective as a specific one. 
False Memories by Isaku Natsume uses the setting of a toy company and its contractor (the company that will make the toys). One protagonist, Nakano, belongs to the toy company. The other protagonist, Tsuda, belongs to the contractor. They know each other but haven't met in many years.

In classic networking business style, once their respective bosses realize they knew each other in high school, the bosses stick them together as the respective point men for their teams. So they have to meet a lot and talk, no matter how much Nakano (says he) doesn't want to. Useful, believable context that creates masses of ongoing tension.
The Workplace as a Useful Source of Conversation
Even a couple that doesn't work together needs something to talk about. No matter how much they love each other, ordinary life must still be dealt with--and ordinary life includes work.
In What Did You Eat Yesterday? by Fumi Yoshinaga, Shiro and Kenji work as a hairdresser and a civil lawyer. They discuss their friends, their families, food (of course), and their jobs. Even when they don't discuss their work directly, what occurs at work affects their attitudes and conversations at home. In the image, Shiro realizes with a shame-faced shake of his head that he finds it easier to listen to his clients' problems at work than to Kenji's far less complicated problems at home.
Everybody's Getting Married by Izumi Miyazono: This screwball-like shojo comedic manga revolves around a young career woman who wants to get married and her boyfriend, a young newscaster/host for entertainment shows who doesn't. But they love each other anyway.

They can't talk about not getting married ALL the time. The rest of the time they discuss their jobs, mostly his, including the tension he feels having to host a live televised show and how he handles his critical boss. 
The Workplace as a Useful Source of Plot
And sometimes the job is the plot. Toko Kawai's In the Walnut and Loveholic are both excellent examples of work supplying the main problems. Character development is linked directly to how the protagonists handle these problems. 
In the Walnut is the title of a 2-volume series and of the art gallery around which the series revolves. In the Walnut is owned by Hideo Tanazaki. His boyfriend, Sohei Nakai--a film student graduate who works for independent (starving) directors--often visits, only to get embroiled in slightly shady transactions. Sometimes, these transactions involve condoning a forgery; sometimes, they involve uncovering a theft; sometimes, they involve outbidding bad guys at auctions. In fact, the manga is a kind of mystery series in which Tanazaki solves art problems by moral though not always legal means.
Note: "In the walnut" refers to Hamlet's speech in Act 2, Scene 2: "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." ("Nutshell" is sometimes translated as "walnut.")

The protagonists of Loveholic are an independent photographer and a manager from an advertising agency. Problems at work often spill over into their personal lives. When Daisuke Matsukawa's jealous co-workers sabotage his marketing campaign by stealing his ideas, Kentaro Nishioka agrees to supply him with new shots and even delivers them to the office. He also agrees to enlarge prints for Matsukawa at the last minute; in revenge for the unexpected request, he includes a silly picture of himself which sends Matsukawa into fits. The silly picture becomes a recurring motif throughout the manga.

On a more somber note, the issue of work and family leads Nishioka to decide to relocate. He has gotten as much as he can out of living in Tokyo. He is ready to move back to Osaka and give back to his community there. Naturally, the issue, Do I ask you to go with me? arises.
Whenever I'm reading a book with vaguely defined characters, the first fix that comes to mind is always, What do these people want to do with their lives? Work-wise?

The next question is, What books do they read!?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Collection Review: Mars

Like Anne and Gilbert, Rei and Kira meet with a hair tug.
Like Hana-Kimi, Mars by Fuyumi Soryo is one my earliest shojo reads. Mars introduced me to my first delinquent Japanese character (who also happens to have lived in L.A. and speaks perfect colloquial English), Rei. He gets poor grades and doesn't care, yet works several jobs, lives by himself, and has a passion: motorcycle racing.

He also happens to have an exceedingly rich father from whom he became estranged when his twin brother committed suicide; the twins, by the way, are actually the children of their father's brother, and presumably this discovery led to the suicide; in actuality, the (dark-side) twin was twisted to begin with.

And so on.

It's another opera--only not quite as light and frothy as Hana-Kimi.

Overall, Mars is quite good. The characters remain consistent. The plot holds together, despite multiple twists and turns. Kira, the main female character, is a soft-spoken introverted artist with a steel core who manages to identify Rei's vulnerability and offer him as much protection as he offers her. As a teenagers-falling-in-love-against-all-odds tale, it is surprisingly realistic in the real-life obstacles that it places in the protagonists' ways and the compromises that the characters must make, so they can avoid Romeo and Juliet's fate. Giving up is the ultimate cope-out, a sentiment I agree with.

And the solutions take political savvy. Mars was my first introduction to the use of shame to bring people into line, namely Kira's stepfather.

And the art is gorgeous!

Like with Hana-Kimi, I own a single volume of Mars, volume 9. Oddly enough, when I first read Mars, it seemed very Western to me. Now that I am more familiar with manga tropes, it comes across as more shojo than I initially realized. But of course, there's a reason that shojo sells in America: some tropes never die.

As well as Mars, I have also read Soryo's ES (Eternal Sabbath), which is interesting (she again deals with the idea of good and evil "twins") but not quite as captivating as Mars.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Archetype: The Wry Friend

Sangchul is the one thinking, "So what?" 
And yes, Seyun wanted to brag.
I discuss the archetype of the Wry Friend on my main blog. Wry Friends occur in Western literature and television but the Wry Outsider is somewhat more common/popular (Spike from Buffy; Crowley from Supernatural).

The Wry Friend is quite common in manga. He or she is also often more intrusive/interactive than in Western dramas/comedies--the manga Wry Friend doesn't simply sit back and observe; he or she encourages the protagonists to fix their problems and get together. The Wry Friend also often supplies ongoing psychological commentary. Yugi Yamada's fun, boisterous crowds of bohemian friends almost always include a commentator/Wry Friend (Naoki is the protagonist of his own stories plus the Wry, Terribly Amused Friend of several others).

One of my favorite Wry Friends in manga, however, is a pure observer: Sangchul from U Don't Know Me by Rakun (technically, a manhwa published in Japanese style). He is not only very funny with his deadpan dialog ("That guy will kill you."). He is drawn in a physically dry way. In a series of short panels near the end of the manga, we learn how he learned that Seyun and Yoojin are going out.

His reaction?

"Huh" best sums it up.

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.