Tag Archives: manga

the japanese project continues–reading!

After starting on a lark one morning after a dream about shopping in Tokyo, nine months later I’m still happily learning Japanese.

A quick review: learned kana (the two phonetic Japanese syllabaries) that first week with ipod apps (Dr. Moku!) with the kids.  Did Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji to learn the shapes and a basic meaning of 2000 kanji in 3 months.  Next I drifted around for another three months trying to figure out what to do next, but finally landed on Wanikani, and Textfugu.  Which brings us up to date.

So, yesterday, haltingly, but with maybe 85% understanding, I read this:

This is a first grade sort of story about goldfish, nothing fancy, just Dick and Jane sort of stuff.  No big deal,  miles from reading, say, novels or, my goal, manga written for adults.

But still!  I felt pretty chuffed when I got through!  I mean, when I look at that block of stuff, I actually see words, not all of them, but a lot.  It isn’t just squiggles anymore.

Maybe Japanese is a scalable mountain, after all? At least, I think I might have reached the  first base camp, the point where some absurdly slow and awkward, yes, but still, some actual reading is possible.

Go me!

What I’m doing in my studies at this point:

WaniKani, crab-alligator, Rules!

I’m still working through Wanikani, a Japanese vocabulary SRS that covers nearly the 2000 basic kanji—including the readings (pronunciations), which I didn’t get with Heisig, plus 5000 actual words.  I’m on level 9 (of 50).  I usually do a round of reviews over breakfast and another in the evening.  I really, really like it.  Doing Heisig first definitely makes it easier, but if I had to do it over again, I probably would skip Heisig and just jump into Wanikani.  The mnemonics, these stupid little stories linking the shape of the kanji/vocab to its meaning and its sound, easily get into my brain, making learning very effortless.  And the SRS seems to be tuned properly, giving me older reviews just before I’m about to forget them again.  Plus the interface is smooth and pretty, a plus.  Two thumbs up!

Wanikani is my main, daily thing, but I also listen to Japanese while walking my puppy, Henry.  Either free-form native-speaker stuff, like the podcast Marimo.  Or I’ll listen to material I have the text for, such as the audio to Breaking Into Japanese Literature, with stories by Natsume Souseki and others, grand auteurs of Japanese literature.  Get Japanese into my ears, that’s the goal with this.

Marimo is relaxing, gals chatting, a bit of music, and I understand a word here or there.  Souseki is more dynamic, and I sit down sometimes and go through the text, picking up more words when I do.  I take this pretty easily, as much as is fun–it’s above my level really, but listening is good and reading a page or so is a struggle but an interesting challenge.  I imagine I’ll do more with this later, when I have more vocabulary.

Another good one for listening is Shadowing–Let’s Speak Japanese, a book/audio combo.  Shadowing is used to train people in simultaneous translation.  It’s repeating what you hear a millisecond after you hear it, as it’s still being spoken, kind of like singing along with a song if you don’t quite remember the words and so you’re listening a few syllables ahead to prompt you.

The Shadowing book is a series of short conversations, starting with the very simple and working up in complexity.  I’ll put one page’s worth of audio on repeat and take Henry out for a walk, listening to that group of interactions over and over, maybe a hundred times, almost like background noise.  Inevitably I begin to know them by heart.  After a couple of walks I can say most of them along with the voice actors.  Plus, after each walk I’ll read through that page again in the book for the text and the translations, matching up what I’ve been listening to to what I see/understand.  It’s a pretty effortless way to pick up conversational chunks of Japanese.  Since I’m mostly focused on learning to read Japanese, this is a nice listening/speaking portion to balance the visual learning of the rest of what I’m doing.

For grammar I have Tae Kim’s wonderful Guide to Japanese Grammar as an app on my ipod and I dip into that when I’m out and about waiting for something.  Ready to learn a grammar point at a moment’s notice!

And then there is my stack of Japanese grammar books, picked up used here and there, for short reading sessions in the bathroom, haha.

For additional reading practice at the sentence level I do a few sentences at Read the Kanji whenever I sit down to the computer.  Just five or ten, a few minutes worth.  Now that I know some vocab, this site is starting to be valuable for me. I love the smooth, well designed interface.  Reading sentences is important, I think, even if I don’t understand the whole thing.  Words out of context will only get you so far.  Vocab learned through context is much, much better.  I do wish Read the Kanji had audio, though.

Anyway, as you can see, I kind of go by the idea that quantity of short contacts with Japanese over the day trumps single long sessions a few times a week, both in working with my short attention span but also, and more importantly, in keeping it fun and easy.

I’m basically cultivating Japanese as a little side hobby, a few minutes here and there throughout the day.  Some people do crossword puzzles or sudoku, I learn Japanese.  What can I say?  It’s relaxing, interesting, and gives my brain something to chew on that has nothing to do with anything I tend to worry about, so it’s restful.

In three months I’ll have been at it for one year.  I’ll do another check in then and see where I’m at.  My idea is that I might be able to read one of my favorite manga series by then, Yotsuba, a delightful and funny kid manga that Sophie, Luc and I adore.  It’s a goal, but I one I hold loosely, no pressure.

By the way, if you haven’t read Yotsuba, I highly recommend—it’s available in English, no Japanese necessary!  Sweet, funny stories about a little girl and her dad.  Great art, laugh out loud, Yotsuba is one of the best selling manga in the world and for good reason.  It’s terrific.

Will I be able to read Yotsuba in Japanese by my 43 birthday?  Tune in in February to find out….

best character driven yaoi: five salarymen plus one historical

Welcome to part three in my Best Character Driven Yaoi series, Salarymen (plus 1 historical)!  Go here for Highschoolers and here for University guys.  Coming soon, musicians, cafe workers, and yakuza!  Now that should be a party.  Of course, basically, by calling them “best” I’m really just saying my favorites.  But since my particular kink is all about well written characters, if you like that too, you’ll find plenty to love on my favorites list.

Let’s dive right in, shall we?  (Oh, an by the way, if you don’t know, ‘salaryman’ is what the Japanese call an office worker.  The female version is ‘OL’ short for ‘office lady.’  FYI.)

Okay, first up, Kyuuso wa Cheese no Yume o Miru or The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese and Sojou no Koi wa Nido Haneru or The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice by Setona Mizushiro.  This series tells the complicated, often painful, emotional roller coaster ride of the relationship between Ootomo, a straight, uptight, salaryman, and Imagase, a closeted gay private detective who has had a longstanding unrequited love for Ootomo, ever since college. 

Set up: Imagase has been hired by Ootomo’s wife to investigate Ootomo’s extramarital affairs.  Imagase uses this to blackmail the easily bullied Ootomo into “just kissing” and from that a whole can ‘o worms opens up for both characters.

From this beginning a lesser yaoi could go high-concept romcom, or silly excuse for porn #429, but thank goodness, this one doesn’t do either.  Instead, it goes for the jugular, and it does it with strong, complex characterizations, honest to god character growth, and, shocker, sex scenes that advance the plot.  I know, right?  Who would have thought?

Ootomo begins the story as a shallow, self-centered, push-over, willing to do anything to keep up appearances, trapped in an empty marriage but not wanting out…not a very likable guy.  Imagase knows just how to manipulate Ootomo into doing what he wants—which is for Ootomo to become Imagese’s lover—and he is self-hating enough to think the resulting relationship is enough for him.  Imagase wants him, no, wait, he can’t stand Ootomo’s ambivalance, no, quick change, he can’t live without him, no, forget it, it’s all too painful.  Ootomo hates himself for going along with Imagase, but he wants to be a good person to him, even though he can probably never be what Imagase wants (since he “isn’t gay”…and Ootomo is very negative for a long while about homosexuality).  He thinks maybe dragging the inevitable out is even worse, but he also kind of misses Imagase when he isn’t there.  Which is it, love or hate? 

Back and forth, it’s grueling.  And oh, so real to life.

Ootomo’s various women—yes, women play actual parts in this story, female characters of substance in a yaoi, knock me over with a feather—also push and shove Ootomo all over the place, demanding, threatening, challenging, tempting.  Eventually Ootomo is cornered into breaking up with Imagase.  But even that goes badly, producing some of the most poignant scenes of being with the wrong person I’ve ever seen.  Kicking and screaming Ootomo (and, to a lesser degree, Imagase) grow up over the course of the story.  The Ootomo at the end is a radically different man from the Ootomo at the start.   And honestly, you don’t see such character transformation often—but especially not in yaoi where a love confession (tears optional), and a sex scene (penetration mandatory), are a typical story climax, and stand in for all the character growth you’re going to get. 

Imagase drives me a bit crazy in the second volume, he just can’t make up his mind between wanting Ootomo (and being willing to do anything to have him) and being terrified of being hurt by Ootomo.  But, as if in response to this wildly swinging weathervane of a man, Ootomo calms down, puts down roots of acceptance, of himself and Imagase as both flawed men doing the best they can.  I love how the ending isn’t certain, that there is acceptance that they might eventually drive each other away, self-destruct, reveal themselves to be, ultimately, too weak.  Real relationship are full of such doubts.  Seriously, this is good stuff!

Highly recommended, whether you go for yaoi as a genre or not.  Extremely well written.  Oh!  And I didn’t say a thing about the art…in a word, it’s terrific.  Strong character design, strong panel layout, beautifully done.  Okay, okay, I’ve gushed enough.

Next!

If you’ve read any of my manga posts you’ve probably heard me mention Yoneda Kou.  I am a huge fan of her  work, especially her astonishing characterization.  My only frustration with her is that there is not MORE by her for me to read.  MORE MORE MORE.  Please?

Well, Yoneda herself has said that her favorite kind of character is a “tired salaryman” so we can’t possibly have the salaryman post with a title or two from sensei.

First up, her Doushitemo Furetakunai, or No Touching At All.  This story is a great example of how masterful execution and interesting characters can take the same old same old and elevate it into something that transcends its roots.  What we have here is the same workhorse of a plot: gay guy has been through the wringer by a straight guy who can’t get his shit together and as a result is shut down and scared.  New straight guy comes along, falls in love with terrified, angsty gay guy, only this straight guy is man enough to handle it.  Through love of the second straight guy, the gay guy is finally able to love again, cue music annnnd cut!

No Touching at All takes this basic plot and retells with terrific, funny, realistic characters, organic relationship development, and intense moments as only Yoneda Kou can deliver.  It’s a veritable study in how to write character interactions of underplayed emotional intensity.  With comedy! And not chibi stuff.  I’m talking about humor that comes out of the characters themselves, not at the character’s expense.

I loved this book.  It’s one of the first yaoi I read and it left me with the mistaken idea that I would find tons of stuff of equal caliber.  Not so.  Shima and Togawa really moved me where so many manga with near identical plots—at the nuts and bolts level—fail completely.

Translation note.  I have both the kindle version currently available from Digital Manga Pub, and yes, I admit it, I’ve read the scans.  In this case, I’ve got to say, the scan is better.  There is some edge, some spark, in the scan that is just…funnier, more interesting, tighter.  It’s subtle but unmistakable and I find it fascinating, as a student of Japanese, why this is so.  Buy the real thing because Yoneda Kou rocks and deserves the money.  But, honestly?  I cringe to say this, but read the scans, too.  In this case, they are better.

One more salaryman from Yoneda Kou: Reply, about a salesman and a mechanic, both previously straight guys, now fumbling their way towards a relationship.  Yoneda is so good at the tiny moments, the distinctive characterizations that again, she makes these two guys unique people, not fill in the blank placeholder characters.  I’m always so interested to see what Yoneda’s characters are going to do next.  Surprise is kind of a rare thing in yaoi, but Yoneda’s work is full of it.

I feel like I am being too vague about what it is that I like about these stories…what exactly is it that makes them so strong?  I think part of it is the specificity in the characterization, a lot of which Yoneda conveys in her terrific art.  Her ability to convey emotion through a character’s body language is off the charts, and is why she can get away with so many dialogue-less panels.  Characters don’t have to endlessly (unrealistically) talk about their feelings, because you can see it in how they are drawn.

There is a strange thing, however, with her speech bubbles where at first it is hard to figure out who is talking—often they are actually reversed, where the bubble closest to the character is the opposite character’s dialogue (at least, that’s how I’m parsing them).  I guess I’ve read enough of her stuff to get it now, and it doesn’t give me any trouble, but I remember struggling at first with “who the heck is saying this?”

Another translation note on Reply, which will be out for $ in January (I can’t wait) from SubLime (Reply is one of the stories in NightS).  There are (last time I checked) two scans of Reply.  One of them is incomprehensible, the other is excellent.  If you go to read it and can’t figure out what is going on, you probably have the not-very-good-scan.  Go find the other one.

So far these titles will be on a lot of people’s Best Of lists, so I wanted to try to find something that might not show up everywhere.  I picked Metro Dogs by Kusama Sakae, for a quiet salaryman story that has some enjoyable characters.  Shinoda, the salaryman, is devastated by a divorce and stumbles into the shop, and into the life, of Asukura, a gay man with a sweet sense of playfulness and humor.  I liked how these two got together, awkwardly, and with no grand confessions or speeches.  They are so different from each other, but tolerant of that.  I also like that they are reversible, something rare in yaoi (which is just baffling to me).

Don’t miss the extra story where their past together is slyly revealed…to the reader, but not to the characters themselves.  I see what you did there!

I feel like I’ve read a ton of salaryman stories, so I was actually surprised when I started pulling this list together that there weren’t more titles on it.  Maybe I had the bar set too high?  I want characters that stand out, that I remember long after I’m done reading, characters that I care about.  I get seriously annoyed at stories with unbelievable characters that are just dolls playacting the part the author has written for them.

There is a writer doing a lot of salaryman who almost makes the cut for me.  Hidaka Shoko has a series of lightly linked salaryman stories, interior designers, advertising executives, etc. who overcome their uptight, prissy almost, tendencies to find true love with artists, cafe owners, and free(er) spirits.  Hidden Flower, After a Storm, and Hatsukoi no Atosaki are interesting and definitely a cut above.

However, the series of hers that I find really remarkable isn’t a salaryman story, it’s a historical. It seems that Hidaka’s brand of uptight, fastidious, brilliant men trying to connect with each other is fabulously suited to a story of Taisho Era aristocracy.  Oh, the clothes!  The rules of etiquette!  The secret glances!

Blue Morning is a fascinating, psychological, dark, intense, story about powerplays among the nobility, family lines, and Katuragi, a powerful butler who pulls all the strings.  Or so he thinks, until the new heir, Kuze, only ten years old, arrives.  As Kuze grows up, his twisty, complicated relationship with the butler (who’s past is painfully tied to the family) becomes a fascinating train wreck.  Smart, complex characters trying to find their way amidst extreme wealth, and politicking nobility.  Think Dangerous Liaisons with two guys plus super complicated family histories (but not, I hope, the sad ending).

I found the cracking open of Katsuragi’s perfect facade to reveal the wounding underneath to be a terrific and riveting piece of story-telling.  That, plus moving Kuze from a clueless child to a powerful man making unexpected choices makes this, to my mind, the best thing by far that Hidaka has done.  I don’t usually go for court intrigue sort of stuff but this series knocked my socks off for emotional intensity. Highly recommended!  Although be warned, it isn’t finished yet.  It could go off the rails.  But I don’t think so.  It’s playing out with sure mastery so far, and I feel like I am in good hands for the last bit when it finally, finally arrives.

Did I mention the gorgeous art?  Here, look, so simple, but Katsuragi comes undone….

So there you have my salaryman list. Plus one historical—hey, they’re still wearing suits, aren’t they?

Tune in next time for the oddballs…

Utsubora: the story of a novelist, by Asumiko Nakamura–creepy, chewy goodness

Utsuboro: the story of a novelist, by Nakamura Asumiko is a rare luxury of a book, so layered and interesting it left me thinking for days and took two back-to-back readings to feel I had wrung (most of) the story from it—and rereading was not a chore.  I can’t overstate how thrilled I am when I find a book that is both rich with story and a pleasure to read and re-read.  A miracle to be celebrated.

And listen, celebrate I did when I saw that Nakamura had a new English language title.  I adored her Doukyuusei and what I can find on-line of its sequel Sotsugyousei (still not available in English, a crime!) which I reviewed briefly here.  I also found her Double Mints fascinating, disturbing, and terrific—indeed, the last page of that story is BRILLIANT.  I do not say that lightly.

So I had no trouble signing up for her murder-mystery psychological thriller plagiarism story.  I mean, come on, it’s about a writer.  And let’s just say the fucked up inner lives of writers is a subject I’m interested in.  Cough.

So.  Utsuboro.  The basic plot.  Mizorogi Jun is a famous writer with writer’s block, tempted by plagiarism (so far a trope I’ve seen too many times before), only to find out that the girl who’s story he has stolen has committed suicide…leaving only two numbers in her phone, Mizorogi’s and her twin sister’s.  The cops are mighty interested in him, but even under their eye and oppressed by his own guilt, Mizorogi enters into a dark affair with the twin sister who continues to give him chapters of the dead girl’s book to use as his own work.  He just can’t stop himself. 

But who is she really?  What are her real motives?  Who’s body was that he saw in the morgue?  Was it really suicide?  Murder?  Something else?  And who really wrote the book he is palming off as his?

Okay, this description doesn’t really begin to cover it.

More pertinent than the plot, to me anyway, is that at its base Utusboro is a story about writing, particularly about the fantasy and mystique of The Author, and the damage that image can do.

Any person who loves reading will have a short list of books in her back-pocket, books that changed her life.  I certainly have such a list.  Books that made me feel deeply, books that shaped me.  I’m not the first person to have felt awe for the people who wrote such books, even deifying the writers/books in a way.  Such writers must be closer to the Truth to have come up with stories that rocked me so profoundly…right? Hmmm….

Nakamura’s Mizorogi is such a writer with legions of fans desperate for his next work, crazy fans, devoted fans (psycho fans?).  Except that Mizorogi knows himself to be a fake—and long before the plagiarism.  He says, “Ha, ‘talent’…I never had such a thing. Nothing of the sort. I faked it and fooled people…with bells and whistles and gaudy frills.  It was all a lie. Though I’ve lived on somehow, clinging onto an empty lie.”

Mizorogi has taken on this identity of Author, adopting for example, the eccentricity of traditional Japanese clothing and an affected mustache, as well as the womanizing lifestyle, accepting the adoration of the reviewers, all of it.  People love it, they love him, that is, they love this image of him, the cult of Mizorogi.  This is what people want him to be.  And what he has come to think is all that is valuable about himself.

Only he has lost his ability to write.  If he ever had it. (He did, I think.  See the lovely scene where he makes up a bedtime story for his child niece, and read the translator’s notes about it at the end.  There is such joyful creativity in that moment.).  Without writing, without flogging what talent he has into producing what his fans want, what does Mizorogi have left?

Here is where Nakamura digs deep into the dark side of writing.  The egoism, the inflation and depression of writing, having done it once the despair of ever doing it again.  The certainty that anything good we have done is all a fake, a lie.  The terror that someone will find out we have nothing to say, that we are (horror!) boring.  The seduction of the positive projections of fans.  The heart stabbing pain when our work is rejected or dismissed.  (No, none of this hit me close to home, why do you ask?)

Without giving away the twisty-turny plot, I will say that piece by painful piece Mizorogi loses his Author identity, right down to his Japanese garb and mustache (the last scenes find him in Western clothes, shaving his face clean).  That the loss of his writer-self is so profound to him is, perhaps, a depressing statement by Nakamura about writing.  Or, at least, about what we think we have to be to write—and what the Cult of the Author does to us.  For Mizorogi, at least, nothing good comes of it.

Which reminded me of the end of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, another story about a writer with writer’s block.  At the end of Bones, the main character gives up writing, saying it is a waste of time that keeps him separate from the real world and the real people in his life.  I think Bones came out around the same time King was trying to retire?  (I guess retirement didn’t stick.)  But this question writers have, why do I do this, why must I do this, is an interesting one, to me.  Mizorogi’s answers to this question are not sustaining.  Perhaps we could say he is brought down by his inability to care about his own work.

The cult of the Author as an eccentric, brilliant, wealthy, dashing, coddled by their publisher, man (usually it is a man) well, it is compelling, cropping up everywhere from Junjou Romantica to the tv show Castle.  But I kind of doubt its reality.  The idea that such a writer is somehow different from regular people, or is the possessor of a rarefied, even deified, mind feels…dated.  Is that the right word? It certainly seems a throwback to bygone days of publishing.  I remembering hearing Madeline L’engle say once, “My stories are smarter than me.”  That seems a smarter way to think about it.  For the writer most especially.

I know dozens of writers, some with multi-book contracts and long, successful careers and here’s the thing: none of them are like that.  Maybe the Author image is more a product  of the literary world and not the genre world I am a part of.  Was John Updike like that?  I think of him when I try to imagine a real life example.  Was Hemingway?

But Mizorogi buys into that mystique completely.  And he can ascribe no value to himself now that he has lost it.

Okay, I’m mostly talking about Mizorogi, but every character in Utsuboro is complex and interesting. For example, Mizorogi’s new editor starts out seemingly so naive and idealistic only to reveal the depths he’ll go for his secret love.  What does he know?  Why isn’t he telling?  Or the detectives who are investigating the suicide, one overwrought by the echos the case brings to him of events in his own past.  Every single character here has a secret desire running his or her life.  There are no walk-ins, no boring bits.  Do you know how hard that is to pull off?

Even Mizorogi’s niece, Koyomi, the most “normal” (honest?) person in the story, secretly has feelings for Mizorogi himself.  I think she represents something pure that Mizorogi has lost and cannot regain.  “I just want Uncle to eat with me what I’d cook, and take walks with me, and teach me the names of flowers, and laugh like he was always a little embarrassed…”

Yatabe, another writer—another Author—answers her, “Writing is what living means for an author.  You write because you’re alive. You’re alive because you write.  Because the author is an author.  An author who can’t write might as well be dead—”

And Koyomi answers, “Does living really require anything to put on a scale against itself?  We simply live. We live because we’re alive.  Me, I’m good with that.  Because I’m not an author.”

And there is that separation again between Autors and mere mortals.

Personally, I’d like to challenge the mystique of the Author.  Perhaps the democratization of writing through things like e-publishing and even fanfiction, two avenues people who write can use to connect directly to readers without the competitive, enclosed world of traditional publishing, has broken (or at least damaged) this archetype.  There isn’t a holy writer/non-writer divide the way the old myths would have us believe.  Writers can be regular people, too.

Maybe if Mizorogi could see that, he would fare better.

Listen, you have to read Utsuboro at least twice.  Just accept that on start.  This is literary-style storytelling with all the subtleties and craft that comes with that.  Time, for example, is slippery, moving forward and back with no warning.  Clues are subtle, not telegraphed, and reward paying close attention.  Resonances are a big part of how the story is told, echos between frame layouts, between symmetrical actions or lines of dialogue, between book-end scenes revealing connections not explicitly spelled out.  Emotions are strong and rarely pleasant as difficult territory is explored.  The art is fantastic, fluid, gorgeous, disturbing.  This is chewy, fascinating stuff, people!  Go buy a copy right now!

Seriously, Utsuboro creeped me out.  In a good way. I found myself going back to reread scenes days later as I tried to put all the pieces together.  I’m still thinking about it as I try to write  this review.  And really, I’ve only been talking about the writer-angle.  How about the girls?  The women who love (are obsessed by?) Mizorogi (or possibly just his work) enough to continually reinvent themselves for him to a freaky degree…the danger of loving an author (or an author’s work) too much?  I mean, what the heck is up with them?  Or how about Yatabe, the writer-friend/competitor of Mizorogi’s who sees through him when no one else does?  I haven’t talked about any of that at all.  You’ll have to take my word for it, there is a lot going on here.

Based on some of the reviews I read, I paid full retail price for this one at the local comic shop (it’s 25% less at amazon).  I want more work like this translated and I would love more by Nakamura, she is fantastic—so I ponied up the big bucks.  Worth every penny!

Highly recommended.

best character driven yaoi: university guys

Moving right along we now come to part 2 in a series on best (best that I’ve run across, anyway, as of 2013, feel free to give me recs!) character driven yaoi, loosely divided (in the interest of not having a post the size of the Mississippi) into like-piles: Highschoolers, University Guys, Salarymen, Everyone Else. I put the emphasis on character driven because “best” will be different for everyone, of course, best=funniest, best=cutest, best=hottest, etc. and I want to be clear that my “best yaoi” is all about the characters.

Without futher ado, and in no particular order….

Hana no Mizo Shiru or Only the Flower Knows by Takarai Rihito and it’s sequel Hana no Migoro ni has got to be one of the slowest build romances I have ever read. In fact, in the first couple of meetings, Youichi, the protagonist, doesn’t even remember or notice Misaki, who he will later fall in love with. Misaki, meanwhile, is standoffish, socially inept, and immersed in his work as a agricultural sciences student. He doesn’t know what to make of happy, outgoing, direct Youichi who can’t seem to get Misaki off his mind. As the start to romances go, it’s not very auspicious.

Well. Flower may start slow, but it rewards staying the course with an unrelentingly lovely sneaking-up-on-you kind of love story. That kind of love that has building for months before it slams you over the head with recognition, the whale finally breaching, big as the sea.

The art is terrific, clean and elegant—the artist is the same illustrator of Seven Days, which I loved. For me, Seven Days is a better written and more interesting story (by Tachibana Venio), but Flowers also has chewy, well delineated characters and a deep undercurrent of emotion. Scenes are often delicate with quiet moments of surprising intimacy between characters who aren’t expecting to care about each other. It’s very sweet, really, capturing the feeling of being surprised by love.

While the tone is serious, it is not angsty. What humor there is is lightly done. By the middle of the first volume, I was totally engrossed. The problems these two have to overcome are not huge, a barely-there girlfriend, Masaki’s difficult past including an ominous first love, the general confusion of having fallen for another guy….but watching these two work through it all with such careful awareness of each other is lovely.

Two thumbs up!

Sidebar: translation. While there are definitely cases where I prefer the scan’s translation to the pro translation, this is not one of those times. The story is so delicate, hinging on half-formed thoughts and half-spoken sentences, glances and confusions, the perfect word choice can be key to understanding what is going on. The pro-translation in this case is 100% more clear. Pay the money on this one—vol 1 is out as an inexpensive ebook, vol 2 should be coming soon. It’s worth it. /sidebar.

Next!

Apples and Honey, or Ringo ni Hachimitsu (first two chapters only) by Hideyoshiko and it’s sequel Kare no Bara Iro no Jinsei, or His Rosy Colored Life is a comedy with great timing and a light touch, plus the same delicate sensibility of Only the Flower Knows. Matsuda is a gay university student who has been bullied and teased in the past and as a result is withdrawn and down on himself. He doesn’t know what to do when a comic, extroverted, straight guy two years younger starts pursuing him. Instinct and old wounding says run the other way. A plot not-unlike Flower, but told this time more as a comedy.

The art here is sketchy , full of little quirks and expressive faces and body gestures. Lots of humor in the details. The characters are clearly delineated, both in the writing and in the art—I feel like I know these guys. They are realistic, with believable emotional layers. Plus the comedy here doesn’t come at the expense of the characters, meaning, the jokes don’t break the character. Rather, the jokes come out of character, out of the character’s own sense of humor. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a laugh-fest. There are plenty of quiet, emotional moments, too, as the characters open up to each other, especially around Matsuda’s backstory. But it’s funny, too.

You get the story all out of order: the first two chapters of Apple are of a beach vacation after the couple are already together (but only recently). The second volume, Rose Colored Life, tells how the two met, the courting of Matsuda, plus what comes after the beach and the deepening of their relationship. Being out of order didn’t bother me, although I went back and read the story in order the second time. Which is to say how much I enjoyed it—I don’t have time to read something mediocre twice. Although there are no serious problems or antagonist besides Matsuda’s painful past, I was fully drawn into the story from beginning to end. Realistic comedy done well with just the right amount of gaynst. Definitely Recommended!

Hydra by Miyamoto Kano, plus its many linked stories including Lovers and Souls and Rules is poignant and realistic storytelling about a group of friends over time. Technically I should probably have this on my “Highschoolers” list because the guys start out there, but they advance to university and then jobs. Besides, my highschoolers list was getting too long….

Anyway. As will happen as groups of friends grow up, things get complicated. A and B fall in love but don’t want to admit it. C falls for B and B, in loneliness over the unattainable A, goes along with it. C is all right at first being 2nd choice, but after awhile it starts to hurt too much. Meanwhile, A realizes a mistake was made, only now it is too late. Probably.

You know, life. It’s messy, we make stupid choices without realizing what we’re doing. Fear, uncertainty, confusion, hiding from our own emotions, making assumptions, the works. Often we don’t know what we were really feeling until years later. That’s the territory this story is explores. Chewy goodness!

The art is serviceable but not great. I often had a hard time telling the characters apart, especially as they aged and their hairstyles changed. But this is totally forgivable as the story is plenty strong enough to make up for it.

Occasionally a bit of a soap opera, but the stories usually avoid this by having such confused, realistic characters. Hydra and it’s spin-offs and sequels has a totally different tone from the previous two sweet stories on this list. This is darker, grittier material.

There are dozens of side stories in this long cycle, make sure to read them all, as the picture becomes increasingly fleshed out if you do. Some of these mini-stories are painful, always the sign of superior writing. But don’t worry, this isn’t a downer in the end. Because I hate those, and I don’t review books I hate. Highly recommended!

Bond(z) by Toko Kawai is a collection of unrelated stories. The second was okay, I think, I can’t remember (not a great sign) and the last couple are, to me anyway, embarrassingly bad. But the title story, bond(z) is excellent, and that is the one I’m reviewing here.

Two friends, university students, after a night of drinking, sleep together. It’s an old story. Except this is two straight guys and it turns out the sex was really good. Playing it off as lust and youthful indiscretion doesn’t work—they can’t stop thinking about it—and so they decide to go for it and just see how far desire will take them. They don’t even break up with their girlfriends, seeing as how they are straight and it’s just sex…it’s all a game, like high stakes poker. Until someone starts falling….

Okay, the plot is not earth shattering. What’s good here is how the story manages to evoke that feeling of going too far, flinging oneself off a cliff and not caring how its going to come out. The reveal moment in the last scene is terrific and what all the build up is for—I actually gasped out loud! The last panel (not the shmalpy one that I don’t quite buy, but the flashback one) is perfect.

Bond(z) is short, I can’t say much without giving it all away, but I really like this story. The characters are distinct and struggling. Plus the sex is hot. Always a bonus. Recommended!

I’m going to do one more, but I hesitate to put this one here and I’ll explain why in a minute. Junjou Romantica by Nakamura Shungiku is one of the best selling manga out there and the very first yaoi to ever hit the New York Times Bestsellers list for graphic novels. This is a huge, international, bestseller folks. Lots of people love it.

The story: a university—wait, he’s a high school student in the first chapter, preparing for his entrance exams—student gets tutoring from his brother’s childhood friend, who happens to be a famous, rich, gay, eccentric novelist. So far, so good. Novelist falls for university student who ends up living at the novelist’s place as a kind of live-in maid, humorously fending off said novelist’s advances. Hijenks ensure.

The reason I hesitate to recommend this one is because of the way this relationship starts. In classic bad-yaoi style, Usami, the older, bigger, novelist, essentially forces himself on skinny, 17 year old Masaki. There are circumstances around this, and Masaki isn’t exactly traumatized (he does have an orgasm, so I think I’m supposed to understand that it wasn’t terrible for him—the whole thing is played almost as a joke) but basically, that’s what happens. Which is…I mean, its deplorable, right? How can one get past it?

Two things. First, I was so curious about why this story was on the best seller list! I pushed past to see what was after the sort-of-sexual assault beginning. Second, Masaki is so…funny. And then so is Usami. In the very next scene after the forced hand-job Masaki undoes Usami by guessing his whole psychological profile and sexual history. Masaki refuses to be cowed by Usami’s wealth, stature, or awards and instead gives it to him straight. Somehow, after the terrible first meeting, it seems as though the two men are…intrigued by each other. So I kept reading.

Misaki is the classic tsundere, all bluster and fuss and endearing anger, while secretly very sweet and loyal. Usami, on the other hand, is hilariously bizarre, obsessed with teddy bears, spending outrageous amounts of money of trivial things, brilliant at his work and yet indifferent to the fame and fans that come with it.

Honestly, I can’t tell if this is

1)a young person’s fantasy of being taken in by a dashing, wealthy, super-star who is miles out of one’s league OR

2) if it is the fantasy of an older writer who wants a cute, much younger lover who also cooks and cleans, all while putting up with one’s terrible personality. It kind of works for me both way.

But what you’re hearing here is character. Interesting, unusual, and in this case very funny, characters. Ah, my weak spot. So yeah, I’ve read all the available volumes. Me and millions of other people.

I should add that there are actually two other story-lines in this series that are lightly linked through a few characters who know each other, but honestly, I wasn’t very interested in them. More tsundere types—it seems to be this author’s specialty—but tsundere pushed too far is just an asshole. Misaki managaes to avoid this, but the tsundere’s in these other two storylines don’t. In my opinion. I found myself skipping them to get back to Usami and Misaki.

So. Despite it’s flaws (for example why, after living together for years, is Masaki still putting up such a fuss? It made sense when he was 18 and didn’t want to be gay, but at 22, after living with his gay lover for four years? Is he developmentally delayed or something?) Junjou Romantica is a fun read. Not deep like Hydra, not intimate like Flowers or Apple, but, I don’t know…enjoyable. Memorable. Funny. Sharply told. The various sub-arcs Misaki an Usami go through are all rather predictable, but the characters are delightful, in an over-the-top kind of way, so I don’t care. Recommended, with reservations.

—–

Okay, that’s my list of university guys. I’m sure there are more out there, and I feel like I’ve forgotten some good ones, but this is what I’ve got today. Recs! I love recs. Coming soon, Salary Men!

best character driven yaoi: high schoolers edition

Yaoi, as I’ve discussed, is a genre of Japanese manga featuring relationships between guys, written primarily for a female audience. Within that broad banner, as for example, say, the American romance genre, there are many, many sub-genres. Fluffy romance, smut-fests, stories focused on Being Gay, alternate realities where it doesn’t matter (to the society as written) that the couple in question is made up of two men, sub-sub flavors, you can get as specific as you like. Sci-fi stories, post-apocalyptic stories, supernatural stories, demon, ghosts, vampires, age gap, teacher/student, salary men, yakuza, bondage, brothers, [insert your kink here], all in mysteries, comedies, farce, historicals, and of course, contemporary relationships happening in modern day Japan.

There is, in other words, a TON of yaoi. And, as in any genre, there are massive gradations in quality, style, craft, depth, and complexity.

Personally, I love well written stories with really interesting characters. Complex, flawed, quirky, real. When the characters are interesting, I’ll tolerate a wimpy plot (even a stupid plot…although not too stupid), although the reverse (a strong plot with boring, stick-figure characters) never works for me. Of course, plenty of yaoi is rather porny and doesn’t bother much with plot or character, and I don’t find that stuff very interesting. So you won’t find that reviewed here.

But it you want interesting characters in your stories, I promise not to lead you astray.

Last week I started making a list of good titles to post here and it got too long. So I think I’ll break it up into loose types: high school, university students, salary men. Maybe another for oddball titles that don’t fit. Do yakuza stories get their own post? How about age gap titles that have one character each of several of my categories? Yaoi featuring pets? Now I’m just being silly. Anyway, I’m imagining this as a series I’ll add to as I read titles I think knock it out of the park. Manga as I like it: only stories with fantastic characters and strong writing need apply.

So. First in a series on great yaoi, High School Dudes in Love! Here we go.

Doukyuusei and it’s sequel Sotsugyousei by Nakamura Asumiko are wonderful character studies with slow pace and quiet, delightful humor. The art is unusual but lovely and carries a great deal of the emotional work of the story. Basically, an extremely smart, though overly nervous, young man is courted by a wild haired, playful musician who inexplicably (Smart Guy thinks) falls in love with him.

This one is a great example of how when the same old cliched story line (boy meets, um, boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back, you know, the gradual opening of two hearts) is told (yet) again with deep nuance and feeling it becomes fresh and reborn. And wonderful! Cliches are cliches, I suppose because at their core they are based on something true. Doukyuusei and Sotsugyousei are about falling in love for the first time, told in quiet moments, glances and private conversations. No real drama, this is slice of life at its best, told with gorgeous art and likable characters. I loved these stories and would gladly read anything this mangaka puts out. Character driven story-telling at its best.

I should add that some would say these two titles are not actually yaoi, but rather, shonen ai, or, literally boy’s love. No sex, just slow-build romance.

Okay, moving on. I’ve got two by Kawai Touko, the first being Ano Kado wo Magatta Tokoro or Just Around the Corner. Just Around the Corner is about a relationship that starts between two guys each at a nadir in their lives. One has just lost his job and his lover (his boss) and the other, a pianist, has lost the use on one hand in an accident. The two hook up in shared commiseration and end up becoming friends with benefits. So far so good.

Then the older of the two gets a job as a high school math teacher and finds out, surprise!, the younger one is one of his students. Dude lied about his age by several years. Whoops.

Teacher/student stories abound in yaoi, and I’m not really into that, but this one gets around all the ick factor by having the relationship start as it did, both guys on equal footing. I also like that the difference in the two character’s maturity levels is apparent in the way the characters act and the choices they make—the age gap isn’t just a number, but a part of the characterization. The whole thing gets a bit shmalpy towards the end, but it still worked for me. I could easily see this as a delightful romantic comedy movie…if they ever made romcoms about two guys. Sweet.

Cut, is my second High School Kawai Touko title. This one is a more serious story about two guys terribly abused by their parent figures who are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. One cuts on himself to deal, the other has been cut by his mother (now passed away). I avoided this story for a while because I thought it would glamorize cutting or abuse, but it didn’t. And, although the guys get together, it isn’t some easy “you and me against the world” soul mates fluff—their respective pasts block them in realistic ways. Although the story veers into melodrama here and there, the characters are strong and interesting and flawed, and the relationship they start up has layers to it. These are not typical people and this is not a typical romance.

I’ll warn you, the relationship that the cutter is in prior to the new guy, is disturbing. And a bit overwrought. But I didn’t feel like it was played for titillation. And it explained his extreme behavior in way that made sense.

I especially liked the end, where the two of them are still lying to each other about certain things—you don’t come out of the childhoods these two have had with perfect confidence and great relationship skills. But they’re working on it.

Since I mentioned there being no sex in the first two titles on this list, I feel like I should point out that there is plenty of it in these two. So there’s an FYI for you.

Okay, next we’ve got Seven Days by Tachibana Venio, art by Takarai Rhito. Another sweet one, a BL title again, (no sex). Seryou has a strange habit (ritual?) of going steady with a new girl each Monday, only to end things with her by the following Sunday. Because of his good looks and gentlemanly manner, he gets away with it—his exs all seem pretty happy with their experience being his girlfriend for a week. Each Monday a new girl confesses her attraction to him and he takes her up on the offer of going out. Seven days to see if love can blossom…so far no one has stuck.

Until, as a lark, a guy, recently dumped, realizes he is first to see Seryou on Monday morning and he asks Seryou out. As a joke. Surprise, Seryou takes him up on it. And for seven days the two boys go through Seryou’s dating ritual.

It’s hard to find in that description what makes this story so terrific. But it is! Slow build tension, delicate characterization, surprising moments, quiet understandings, the whole thing is just so well written and so beautifully drawn. Not a heavy drama but it’s serious. I couldn’t put it down. I hated when the seven days, and the story, was over. No, no! I kept trying to slide to the next page, looking for more. I love stories like this, with so much feeling in such a tiny space. Bonus: they are both in the archery club, so gorgeous art of gorgeous guys pulling back on a long-bow. Nice. Highly recommended.

Okay. Now for something a little different, here is Udagawachou de Mattete yo, or Wait for me at Udagawachou by Hideyoshiko, about a quiet, intense guy who accidentally discovers one of the popular guys in his class out in the city….cross-dressing. To his surprise, he finds he is powerfully attracted to him/her. What to do next?

I had passed this title by several times because the subject matter wasn’t of particular interest to me, but I finally gave it a try because it kept coming up on lists of recs. I’m glad I did because it drew me right in with this intense situation these guys find themselves in and the characterization. Some really good writing for this one in the way the characters deal with what they are experiencing, how they mess it up, or make it right. I was completely engaged from beginning to end. I say, give it a try.

Well the above titles are almost always listed if you people are making lists of the best of the best. I thought I’d try to add a few lesser known titles that, while not quite as strong as the above, are still very good, especially with their characterizations. Or, at least, they fit my particular fetish for quirky, weird, characters…?

Here are two with very similar premises that I enjoyed. Not as much as the above titles but still, odd, atypical characters, doing things that surprise me…not easy to come by.

Karada Meate de Warui ka by Koizumi Kiyo and Endou-kun no Kansatsu Nikki by Hayakawa Nojiko are both stories of relationships that develop between a big, athletic, somewhat thickheaded guy, and a small, smart, intense guy. I wonder if this is a sub-sub-sub genre all it’s own? Not a lot of conversation, not a lot of clarity, just a couple of believable, confused teen-aged guys grappling with emotions in surprising, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always messy, ways. Blunt, weird…I don’t know, mayb I like these stories because the characters are so whack about their own emotions. Interesting characters…I told you I was a sucker for them.

One more quick opposites attract story, Negative-kun to Positive-kun, also by Hideyoshico, (author of Meet Me At H, described above, which was the reason I picked up this one). I just read this, so I don’t know if it will stand the re-read later test, but it was fun and sweet and had very funny characters. Gee, I bet you can’t tell from the image at the left which guy is the “negative” in the title and which one is the “positive”? This is a light story about an established couple, which is nice, too. Most stories are about how a couple comes together, so its fun to get a story that is further along the line than that. These guys each have serious flaws but somehow they only see the good in each other. I read it in the bath. It made me laugh.

And that’s my list for today. Next time I do this, I’ll pick out best character-driven university student yaoi, for the win! And then salary men. Then yakuza?

And don’t forget my motto: read what you want! No shame! Life is too short for shame.

manga food! in which we cook japanese kare raisu and slurp bowls of homemade ramen a la the wonderful manga, shinya shokudou

If you read much manga at all it won’t be long before you’re reading about food. Indeed, some of my favorite manga center around food and restaurants, stories like Antique Bakery and Dining Bar Akira…and most recently, Shinya Shokudou, by Abe Yaro. (Links are to my reviews.)

Shinya Shokudou is about an old-fashioned, all-night food stall and its proprietor, plus the many dishes he prepares to suit the tastes of different customers…and the funny, poignant, interesting stories of the regular patrons and their night-owl life-styles. Nominated for the 2nd Manga Taisho Award (2009) and the winner of the 39th Japan Cartoonist Awards Grand Prize (2010), the art is funny, quirky, and unusual—as are the stories and the characters. Sweet, delicate, no overarching plot, just short episodes centered around the regulars and their food. I was so sad when I came to the end!

I also SERIOUSLY wanted to eat.

Actually, tons of manga I read make me want to eat. All these pretty drawings of bento, or quirky food-stalls, or interesting regional dishes. Gah! I don’t even eat most of this stuff, fried pork cutlets or various kinds of fish everything, or sausages cut into the shapes of octopi. Still, it’s like cigarettes in manga. I have no interest in smoking whatsoever…but it looks so cool and awesome and sexy when some of these characters smoke (and many, many of them do)…it kind of makes me want to try it. A little bit. I mean, not really. But sort of.

But junky food, that’s not like smoking, I can try that on for a night or two, one meal won’t kill me….

All righty then! What is the single most common manga food that pops up over and over, eaten constantly by manga characters, about which I have become terrifically curious?

Curry Rice.

Or, as it is known in a strange around-the-world, English-to-katakana and then back to English again in the form of romanization: kare raisu.

There is this great story in Shinya about Yesterday’s curry (because curry always tastes better the second day) and a relationship that forms between two regular customers, so sweet and funny.

<—– Read right to left <——

Wait a minute. Japanese curry? Huh? Isn’t curry Indian? I know, I know, I was confused, too. But seriously, as far as manga is concerned, curry rice is like meatloaf in a contemporary Japanese family dinner line-up. Ubiquitous comfort food, eaten by the masses. The history of why the Japanese eat curry is discussed in this interesting article over at Tofugu and I’ll link it rather than quote at length. But suffice it to say, after reading about the 2oo,000th manga character eating kare, I had to try it.

And not just any curry. I wanted the real stuff, the kind they make with the pre-packaged roux, made in a factory, constructed out of industrial strength MSG, spices, and palm oil.

Okay. So with that description in mind the kids and I headed off to the Asian Market! Where we scored this:

That’s not a giant chocolate bar, that is authentic S & B Japanese kare roux. So, it goes like this:

Saute a chopped onion in oil or butter until translucent. Add whatever you want in your kare, meat if you eat it, veggies, etc. We used the manga classic of potatoes and carrots, to which I added tofu and cabbage. Add some water and simmer for ten minutes or until everything is done to your liking. Add the roux and let it dissolve into a salty, spicy gravy. Serve this savory stuff over short-grain Japanese white rice. Like so. YUM. Vegan, even!

I don’t usually eat MSG so I was a little worried that I would get headaches or heart palpitations or asthma attacks…but I was fine. And this stuff was seriously tasty. Sophie, Paul and I licked our bowls. Luc refused to even acknowledge the curry’s presence in the yurt, of course, he doesn’t eat “weird food”. But I can see why they like it in Mangaland. Hearty, lip-smacking, make-you-want-to-eat-more in a homestyle junky food, but not too junky kind, of way.

Mission accomplished.

Well, if kare raisu is the number one (in my estimation) manga food, what is the number two? It’s gotta be ramen. (Or possibly instant noodles? But who wants to eat those?) But really, manga characters are constantly going out to ramen shops, passing through those doors with hanging down blue noren curtains, and it makes me crazy because at this point I soooo want to eat ramen from an all-night ramen shop like the one in Shinya, and I can’t. I swear, this has become my new travel-food fantasy. I want to have espresso in a Parisian cafe, and I want to eat ramen in an all-night ramen shop in Tokyo. In the rain. I don’t know why rain is important, but it is. It’s probably a Blade Runner thing.

Anyway. On the heels of my curry success, I decided to try to make some ramen, not, obviously the chemical packs you can buy in any grocery store (yuck), and not the REAL ramen where they boil beef bones for three days to make a broth the recipe of which is a secret passed down in the family for generations. But surely there was something in between? Surely there is some homestyle ramen I could made here in North Carolina that will satisfy my curiosity and manga-spawned cravings?

To Google!

Where I found this very simple recipe that was, honestly, quite delicious. Not vegan because of the dashi stock, and the egg. (You could make it vegan by using kombu seaweed instead of the dashi. And leaving off the egg.)

From the Asian store: fresh curly noodles (Luc’s name for them). Hondashi instant dashi stock (primarily MSG, plus dried fish). Shitake mushrooms. Scallions. Shiro Miso. Seaweed. Garlic. Eggs.

Boil the eggs, then then noodles (in the same water is easy). Rinse and divide into four bowls along with some of the seaweed and the peeled eggs, sliced in half. Simmer 8 cups of water with 2 tsp of the dashi stock granules, 1 T of soy sauce, plus the garlic and mushrooms, for ten minutes or so. Turn off the heat and stir in 4 T of miso. Ladle the broth over the noodles. Sprinkle with scallions and chilli flakes (for me because I love hot things). EAT.

I was surprised at how delicious this ramen was! Really, this was seriously tasty and light years better than those instant noodle packs that also go by the name of ramen. Even Luc slurped up his bowl, too busy eating to answer my “how is it?” He did manage a thumbs up after a minute, haha. Definitely a success.

I see there is a live action drama made from Shinya Shokudou.

I wonder where I could watch it? From this picture it looks terrific.

But of course, for the ultimate in Ramen Media, you have to watch the WONDERFUL 80s movie Tampopo. A really, really good film, highly recommended. It isn’t manga, but even I can branch out every now and then.

Irasshaimase!

yamashita tomoko, mud, dining bar akira, illumination…great manga!

Today I offer you some wonderful, quirky, weird, awkward, moving, and delightful manga by Tomoko Yamashita.   She writes these charming, messed-up characters, struggling into and out of relationships, trying to make real connections and often failing…and you should just totally go read her stuff if you like that kind of thing, because she is terrific.

For example, MudMud is a one-shot, the manga equivalent of a short story, about a very intelligent high-school girl who is bored, bored, BORED with her life.  She longs to feel something, to feel passionately.  She longs for something to happen.  To entertain herself, she has hilarious and bizarre fantasies, usually about the death of everyone around her.  She is a terrific character.  She does have a lukewarm crush on her cram school teacher, but wonders if real love might wake her up.  Meanwhile, she murders everyone around her in her mind, just for something to do.

All of this changes when she “accidentally” sees some text messages on her teacher’s phone revealing that he fantasizes about being dominated sexually by a girl. BDSM stuff.  She is amazed and inspired by this non-boring revelation.  Our milquetoast cram school teacher is not so milquetoast after all!  “I think I could become the kind of girl you like,” she says.  Thus begins their bizarre and fascinating relationship, the girl cooly dominating the adult who is helpless before her confidence.

Always, the best is how she sees the world.  For example, this moment when he realizes he really has feelings for her…

…and his heart explodes out of his chest.

I highly recommend this story!  Unfortunately it is not licensed in English, so all we have is the scan for now.  But it’s well worth seeking out.  Smart, interesting characters like this don’t come around all that often.

Next, take a look at Dining Bar Akira.  I heart stories that take place in restaurants—the kitchen staff, the waits, the insanity.  Probably because I spent several years doing short order for an assortment of restaurants in my twenties.  Restaurant people are a breed apart, night people, freaks, drinkers, at least that was my experience, haha, ahem.

Dining Bar Akira handily captures that feeling of the high-speed chaos of a working kitchen, plus the funny relationships that spring up between co-workrs who can feel a bit like your trench buddies when the place gets slammed.  It is in this setting that we meet Akira, the manager, and Torihara, a part-time cook who has feelings for Akira, much to Akira’s comic dismay.  Akira is funny, dramatic, straight, open-hearted, honest, upbeat, funny, did I mention funny, and the older of the two at 32.  Torihara is cynical, smart, perceptive, straightforward, gay, brave, dark, and younger, at 26.  In four chapters we get the story of their coming together in smart, emotionally too-true comic fashion that I found extremely enjoyable.  I love how they each deal with their insecurities and fears, as well as real concerns, often in absurd and comic ways (especially Akira), punctuated by moments of real connection.  And I enjoyed how they do this surrounded by a cast of waitresses, cooks, childhood friends of Akira, and Maki, the owner, who has known Akira for twenty years.  It’s a great story!  With wonderful comic timing.  Really, this one hit all the right notes for me—it’s so lovely to get great comedy AND emotional truth in equal perfection. Highly recommended, and it’s licensed, so you can get your very own copy.

On the other hand, Tomoko Yamashita doesn’t, for me, hit the ball out of the park with everything she does.  Some of her stories, in English anyway, fail to connect with me.  Some of her characters are so muddling, speaking in phrases and at cross-purposes to themselves, that I either can’t care deeply or I just can’t figure out what they are feeling enough to understand the story.  For example, the stories in Yes, It’s Me suffered from this, as did Koi no Hanashi ga Shitai, a one volume work.  I can’t help but wonder if some of this may be translation issues.  So many false-start sentences in the dialogue that don’t add up to something comprehensible…Japanese is often spoken in what, in English, would be considered stripped down fragments.  I wonder if the translator for that bunch of stories tended to translate more literally, leaving out the bits that are implied in the Japanese, but are needed for clarity in the English?  Just a theory.

This was NOT a problem with the stories in Illumination.  Mature, realistic, complex, sometimes painful.  It starts with the title story, Illumination, a three chapter love triangle between broken people, three men who can’t seem to connect.  Such likable characters even as they struggle, and then bam, the last page kind of rips your heart out.  Roses, Thorns and a Shattering Clang is another love triangle, a girl and a boy both in love with the same guy—who is bullying the quiet in-love boy until the girl starts helping him out and the rivals-in-love become allies.  Pow, that last panel goes straight through me.  About Him is about a young man who jokingly makes a list of people to “invite to my funeral”…and then dies in a sudden accident.  Those people are invited and…again, pow, right in my heart.  Actually, that’s probably the common factor in all of these, an ability of each story to snap my heart open in a surprising move at the end.  You know, when something poignant is revealed and tears pop into your eyes so suddenly it takes you by surprise?   Like, boom, I’m crying, how did that happen? Almost all of these stories do this for me.  Rare!  Do you know how hard that is to pull off???  Highly recommended.

A few other Yamashita stories from other collection that stand out to me, Stars Spica Spectre (in Touch Me Again) is a moving story about a young man haunted by the lost ghost of someone he once bullied.  Spooky and strange and sad.   And Don’t Cry Girl is a hilarious story about a high school girl who ends up staying with a friend of her father…who happens to be a bit of a nudist.  Think Austin Powers with the fruit that is always just in the way of his boy bits…?  A little rocky on the dismount for me, still this story made me laugh out loud multiple times and was quite enjoyable, even though the ending did quite land.

I wish more of Yamashita’s stuff was translated!  There are some titles that look really good but are nowhere available in English.

You see why I have to learn Japanese?

a few reasons to learn japanese, or, why the heck am i doing this?

Short answer: manga.

I am certainly not the first person to fall in love with the literature of another culture enough to go learn the language so I can read it in its original form.  But in addition to that, there is  a ton of manga that just isn’t available in English at all.  Or it might be, if I wait long enough (either through licensing or by fan scans), but that’s like knowing there is a giant buffet of marvelous food, right on the other side of this wall, only they won’t let me in the door.

Pisses me off.  How do I get into this club?

And man, waiting for the English is an iffy game.  For example, Est Em, a terrific mangaka had—yes, HAD—several titles in English officially available through JManga, a digital-only site, including The Apartments of Calle Feliz, which I was really looking forward to after reading her Age Called Blue, which is dynamite. Est Em does all kinds of literary moves in her works, time jumps, telling stories backwards, interlocking stories, troubled characters who do the opposite of what they say, complex relationships.  She makes you work a bit more and the pay off is worth it.  I love her stuff. But then JManga goes out of business!  Just this month!  And I didn’t get a copy of Happy End Apartment in time!  Now the only version available is in Japanese.

I’m so annoyed about this.  Annoyance is a big motivator for me.

Or, say, there is this lovely shojo title Taiyou no Ie by Tammo, about a make-shift family of smart, funny, grumpy, tsundere-type young people who have lost their parents through death or abandonment and are making a go of it together in this big rambling house.  I’ve read some of the scans and really liked it, but they only go far, and it isn’t licensed in English.  If I want to find out the ending, or pay the mangaka, I’ve got to buy the Japanese.   You see where this is going.

Another good one, The Heartbroken Chocolatier by Mizushiro Setona, an award winning shojo manga about a guy who becomes a chocolatier to seduce the girl he loves, even if she’s a two-timing bitch who is married to someone else.  Ha!  I love the warpedness of this guy.  The part I’ve read is bitter and sweet, just like the gorgeous, mouthwatering chocolates the main character is constantly making and eating, oh my god, get me to the chocolate store NOW.  Can we say CHOCOLATE PORN.  But only the first bit of this story has been scanned.  I would dearly love to read the rest….

Jillions of people on this planet can read both English and Japanese.  It can’t be impossibly hard or anything.  Why can’t I be one of them? 

A final example: Yoneda Kou, an amazing, amazing storyteller, flawed only in her apparent tendency to leave stories hanging—her title list is littered with abandoned series that just break my heart.  One of my favorites, The Songbird Doesn’t Fly, I’ve written about here.  But only one, ONE title of hers is officially licensed, No Touching At All, a really strong, complex, interesting love story.  Great stuff.  I bought that one—digital only, as the English is out-of-print (!!!)—but I want to have more of her work to pour over as a writer, just to figure out how the heck she is doing what she is doing with these characters.  But the only access I have is spotty fan scans.

OBVIOUSLY I NEED TO READ JAPANESE.

And in her case, I don’t just want to read her stories in Japanese because of a lack of available English version, I also would really like to read her stories in Japanese because that’s how she wrote them.  Listen, Japanese is a language that is all about context—Japanese leaves out vast swaths of stuff you say explicitly in English.  Kou’s characters are like that, too.  I’d really like to see how they speak in their own language.  The thought gives me a bit of chills, actually.  Does that make me an otaku?

PLUS, if you have any kind of book fetish at all, you would love the gorgeous way they do book design on some of these Japanese manga.  I mean, wow.  I go to the local comic shop with its tiny two shelves of manga and I just…fondle.  So preeeeetty!!!!  I don’t know if you can tell from this photo of the front and back of Songbirds, but the cover is impeccably elegant.  There is an obi, a paper band, around the bottom, see it?  And the texture of the paper is sumptuous, with the gorgeous caligraphy-style kanji and Kou’s beautiful, disturbing artwork.  Makes me want to forswear digital.  Except the convenience/cost wins in many situations….

Anyway.  Obviously, I need to know Japanese.  Right?  This is not a crazy mountain I have decided to climb, but a mere roadblock between me and my drug of choice.  Lots of people do this.  People learn languages all the time.  And hey, I’m at 1100 kanji and halfway through the kana.  Plus, I find the more I learn the more into it I get.  This is doable.  Maybe.

Okay, I will probably run out of steam at some point and that will be okay.  But I have this idea that if I can get “reading in Japanese” up and running even a tiny bit, the whole project will become somewhat self-feeding.  I mean, I learned English so well largely because I read copious amounts of the stuff.  If I can read even the simplest of Japanese, that leads to reading more, which scaffolds one up into reading even more….seems like the same path might work for me again.  Just have to get over the first hump….

In summary.  A few reasons to learn Japanese long answer: Yoneda Kou.  Chocolate porn.  Tsundere families.  Happy endings.

I AM SO DOING THIS.

more and more manga: my little monster, missions of love, and hana to akuma, 3 sweet romances proving that maybe i am not as bitter and hardened as i tend to think

I am on a reading BINGE.  Picture a bull dozer just loading up mountains of books and then dumping them into my eyeballs.  It’s all manga of course because something is wrong with my brain and I can’t seem to pay attention to novels these days.  I need pictures!  Which is ridiculous given that I AM A NOVELIST.  What is wrong with me?  I start reading a novel and I glaze out after half a page.  Wait, actually I have read several novels in the past couple of weeks, stories written for critique exchanges with writers I know.  So it IS possible, it’s just kind of…painful.  In contrast, I have to set timers to keep myself from reading manga too long, and I’ve been regularly staying up way too late reading while everyone else has dropped off.  I wonder what my deal is?

Anyway, ready for a rundown of some of the best of my recent binging?  Remember, I don’t review the shite, only the goodies, and believe me, you can figure a half-dozen, a dozen, maybe more, titles have been read and enjoyed somewhat, or read for a bit but ultimately discarded, for every one title I mention here on the blog.  Oh and it’s mostly relationship stuff lately.  No mecha-robots or apocalypse zombies or multi-generational fairy wars this time.  Sorry!  Next time.

And don’t forget the great titles on the previous couple of blog posts!  Because apparently, this blog is all about the manga this week.

So.  Today I offer you three high-school girl shojo stories because (1) they are ubiquitous, and if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, plus (2) they are funny romantic-comedy stories, which I love on rainy days, while eating chocolate, which is what today is all about.  I also have, for another post, three great yaoi stories, and a couple of weird what-is-this stories…I always love to find those.  But this post is going to be long enough as it is!  More reviews will have to wait until later.

Okay!

My Little Monster rises above the masses because it has hilarious, interesting, well-written characters, something I always fall for.  Shizuku, a super straight-laced study-bug gets entangled with Haru, a crazy, super-smart but severely ADD (or something like that?) guy with a rich family that he is avoiding and a tendency to beat people up when he doesn’t understand the social dynamics in a given interaction.  Which is all the time.

If this doesn’t sound funny, trust me, it is.  Missed signals, impulse control, exasperation, test-score competitiveness (one-sided on Shizuku’s side, Haru could care less that he gets the highest scores), plus a cast of funny, sweet characters.  Rom-com at it’s best.  Seriously, I just love watching these characters get so befuddled about each other and about their own feelings for one another.  Really fun.

My Little Monster is on-going, so I can’t comment on the whole story, bummer.  I HATE WAITING.  And yet, I must.

Next!

Missions of Love, has, I think, a terrible title obscurring a very enjoyable story. I’m almost too embarrassed to put the cover up here with that stupid title.  Oh, you know what?  I’m going to put the Japanese version here to obscure my shame. Okay.  This one is about a Yukina, a writer, actually a high-school girl who is a secret (but very dedicated) writer, who uses the people and interactions around her as a base for her stories.  When she realizes she knows nothing about romance, she decides to do some research.  Classic romantic comedy set-up!  She sets her sights on Shugire, a popular guy who dates everyone—and finds out some dirt on him which she then uses to blackmail him into doing her “research” with her.  Thus begins a strange adversarial relationship where they each keep trying to manipulate the other one, all while doing her “missions” that start with “holding hands” and work up from there in a pretty steady arc.

I’ve got to say, I’ve seen and read full-frontal sex scenes that don’t have nearly the juice that Missions gets out of hand holding.  I am dead serious about this.  The missions are simultaneously chaste and hot.  They haven’t even kissed yet but it’s all about lust and who one is willing to feel it with and why.  It’s pretty great.  Yukina has a child-hood friend who is in love with her and would gladly do her “research” with her, but she doesn’t feel it with him.  High concept rom-com love triangles for the win!  A great, fun read with great characters, which is all I usually ask for, really.  Once again, this title is on-going, so I don’t know the ending GAH.  Waiting is THE WORST part about reading manga.

Next!  Hana to Akuma (Flower and the Devil) got off on a weird foot with me because the premise just sounds so wrong, and yet I found I kept reading.  A dashing, top-hat wearing demon named Vivi comes to Earth for some reason (we find out later) and sets up an English-style mansion in Japan where he lives, bored, until he happes upon a baby girl, left outside his front gate.  He takes in the baby, on a lark, and, with the help of his demonic butler, raises her.  The story starts when she is fifteen and a romance is starting to bud between the two.

Now doesn’t that sound weird?  Wait, isn’t he her guardian father-type?  What’s up with this?  I don’t know, I can’t explain why it worked for me because usually anything that smacks of kid/parent incest is a deal-breaker for me.  I’m not interested.  But this…the girl is named Hana, which means flower.  Demons can’t touch flowers without them withering at once, and yet Hana gives Vivi a flower every day because they are pretty and she wants to make him smile.  He can’t understand it.  The whole story, really, is about him coming to understand this one thing.  It’s so….sweet.

The relationship develops very, very slowly.  Hana is ridiculously sheltered and talks about herself in the third person like a little child, which weirded me out even more, but her innocence is part of the whole deal.  And here is the thing:

THE ENDING IS ONE OF THE BEST PAY-OFFS THAT WASN’T THE PAY-OFF YOU THOUGHT YOU WANTED BUT WAS WAY BETTER, EVAR.  I’m serious.  I was weeping, I mean, ugly crying, and it isn’t a sad ending, because you know I hate those.

Seriously, I usually go for dark, complicated, fucked-up relationships and this one is so…not that.  I can’t even type out words like “pure” with a straight face and yet this book wants me to.

Just goes to show that I really will read anything. 

Hana is complete, at least, so no waiting for the pay off I promise is coming.  Hang in there until the end!

Anyway.  So there you have it, today’s offerings, three sweet, funny romances about teen-aged girls.  Maybe I’ll do guys in love next, or cross-dressing fashion lines, that one is awesome. Or the one about apprenticing with a space-time witch? Or maybe I’ll read something terrific tonight!  Did you know you can buy emanga for cheap and read it on a kindle or an ipad right then, one click instant gratification????  This is probably not a good thing.

And really, what IS with this binging?  I’m not avoiding my own novel—which, it would seem I can still work on, thank goodness.  I’m about 70% through the revisions and it’s going well, whew.

Dunno.  Phase of the moon maybe.  But I say, LET THE BINGING CONTINUE!

help me out here: where are the complicated relationship stories about straight couples?

After reading the terrific Saezuru Tori wa Habatakanai, reviewed in my last post, I started sucking down yaoi manga like the crazy person that I am and I’ve got to say, it’s kind of eye-opening and here’s why.

Where are all the complex, troubled, intense, sexual, interesting relationship manga involving straight couples?  Am I missing something here?  Why can’t I find them?  And why are all the straight-couple romance stories so predictable?

Don’t get me wrong, yaoi is, as far as I can tell, chock full of sweet, romantic, predictable fluff/smut fests (your choice), just like manga written about straight couples.  But there IS a whole subset of stories I’m finding now about actual adults having actual adult relationships (vs. the idealized romance arcs typically found in shojo and even josei—written for adult women—manga).  Salarymen (Japanese “business men”) struggling in their gay relationships are not super common, but they can be found, it is a subset of the genre, for example, No Touching At All, a terrific story by the same author as Saezuru, or The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese and it’s wonderful sequel The Carp On the Jumping Block Jumps Twice.  Those were all really well done, chewy, interesting stories about complicated people.  Highly recommended.

So where are the analogous thirty-year old women stories?  Because I’m having trouble finding them.

Realistic, complex stories, about realistic, complex characters.  That’s all I’m looking for.  Is that too much to ask?

Tramps Like Us, remains the go-to working-woman-in-relationship rec, as far as I can tell, and it is tres delightful, to be sure, but it can’t be the only one.  Say, “I love you” has the sensibility I’m looking for although it is about high school, but it feels real, if that makes sense.  There are a couple of others (although nothing is leaping to my mind at this moment).  But on the whole, straight-relationship-manga seems to be, for the most part, about high school girls being wooed by older dudes in a blushing, oh don’t touch me there, kind of way.  If you want strong, complex, older characters dealing with realistic relationships in manga, it seems like you have to go to BL.

Tell me I’m wrong.  Point me to some titles. Why are woman characters so wimpy in manga?  Am I reading the wrong books?

Okay, I was trying to think of novels, too, and it’s been awhile since I read novels heavily but examples that come to mind are, say, White Palace (and the terrific Susan Sarandan movie that was based on it), or Endless Love (and the terrible Brooke Shields movie that was based on it).  I know there must be tons of others.  Recs?

Anyway.  I love me some manga—and all kinds of stories, not just romantic ones—as anyone who has read my blog recently can attest. And I DO have a soft spot for high school girls falling in love that can enjoy well done shojo, no problem.  But sometimes I crave something else.  A something else that I’ve been finding this week within BL, which surprised me.  So.  What’s up with that?   Why is it that in order to tell a juicy, complicated, sexual, relationship story, we have to make both the characters men?

I welcome recs!  Basically I’m in the mood for any complex, interesting, relationship stuff, straight or gay, I don’t care, anything as long as it is interesting.  This stuff must be out there.  I can’t be the only one who wants it.  Why is it so hard to find?