Saturday, May 30, 2009

Yuri Manga: Yuri Monogatari 6 (English)

I wasn't able to get a larger cover picture than this... -_-;;

For my final Josei Week review (although certainly not the last josei review I will post here), I'm reviewing a brand spanking new English translated (well, partly translated and partly OEL) yuri manga, Yuri Monogatari 6.

Yuri Monogatari is a yuri anthology published annually containing manga one-shots by Japanese artists and OEL "world" artists. This is the first one I've read, so I can't compare it to previous volumes. Anthologies are always somewhat difficult to review because they're a mixed bag by nature, although my opinion on the various stories contained here varies dramatically. I'll briefly go over each story.

"Grass" and "Make a style" by Nishi UKO: This is a good way to begin the volume. "Grass" and "Make a style" are both slice-of life vignettes giving a peek into the lives of two female high school teachers who are in a committed relationship together. The art is clean and realistic (by manga standards), and the laid-back tone reminded me a little of Akiko Morishima's The Conditions for Paradise. Setting aside the fact that I really like seeing yuri teacher romances that don't involve students (which are all too rare, unfortunately... hell, I'm still in college and I wouldn't consider dating a high schooler, so I have a hard time empathizing with a teacher finding one appealing), my main caveat is that I wish that "Grass" and "Make a style" were longer, so that they could expand on the characters' personalities more.

"40 Minutes" by Maria Bieganska: This story stands out in this anthology for its delicately low-key fantasy plot. "40 Minutes" is about a woman searching for her lost love in what appears to be the afterlife, but the ending throws in a plot complication that I didn't expect. While the art is occasionally a little inconsistent, Bieganska does a good job of conveying the melancholy aesthetic that carries the story. When much of YM6 consists of uber-tough women doing uber-tough things, and/or happily-ever-after romance, this understated love story that evokes a feeling of mono no aware (an awareness of the transience of something, and a bittersweet sadness at its passing) provides a refreshing balance.

"Sakura Gun (London)" by J.D. Glass: Unfortunately, this was probably my least favorite of the stories in YM6. As someone who hasn't read American Goth, which this story is supposed to be tied to, I wasn't able to follow what was what. The storytelling wasn't terribly complex, but it was told in such a way that it seemed like the reader is expected to know who's who and why one should care about them. (At least the Matsukaze reference was a nice touch.) Plus, the art was terrible. Proportions were wonky, and as a whole, the character drawings looked like something that anybody could have drawn using a Microsoft art program.

"Cause x Play" by Hope Donovan: A decent but unremarkable story of cosplay and gender identity at a yuri convention. The premise sounds promising, but it gets muddled by a convoluted beginning and an overly preachy, saccharine ending.

"Miho-chan's Memories" by Rica Takashima: As usual from Takashima, this was a cute, funny, surprisingly self-contained one chapter spin-off from Rica'tte Kanji?! visiting Miho's childhood and an early (maybe her first?) crush. While I was a little concerned that the story might be overly-correlating Miho's tomboy personality with the fact that she is gay, this story is sweet and good-natured enough that it's easy to overlook. I'm looking forward to the next installment in Takashima's manga.

"Jaded" by Cheryl Ingro (Story) and Sirkrozz (Art): The idea for the story is pretty snazzy (two women involved in crime gang wars), but the execution doesn't really live up to it. The resolution towards the ending in particular came across as anti-climactic, and the art ranged from quite good to way overly sketchy. Movements, especially, could have been drawn better at key times. It isn't bad and the ending is cute, but it isn't very good, either.

"For the Girl Who Has Everything" by Althea Keaton: This story definitely wasn't what I expected based on the title. Even though it is well executed, I couldn't really get into it. The premise just doesn't do much for me (woman who frequents a sex shop gets together with a woman who works at the sex shop). The very end was cute, and I'm sure that plenty of people will get more out of it than I did, but... I didn't personally like it much. That happens.

"Sinful" by Houjou Koz: This was a charming music-centric story about a singer and her girlfriend, and the high school-aged groupie who crushes on the singer from a distance. It was short, sweet, and simple, with a cute ending. ^^ There isn't much more to say. The art is clean and simple, but not overly so.

(Un)Invited Guests by Jessie B: This is the most unequivocally non-manga emulating OEL story in the anthology. Assuming that one doesn't mind that, the art is pretty good, with few inconsistencies and a completely unsentimental, bold-lined style (no softly blushing cheeks or flower imagery here) that does a good job at conveying this non sequitur comedy about the birthday party from hell. (Hint: It's chock full of exes.) It isn't brilliant, but it's entertaining.

Simple by Sophia Kudo: Good characters, so-so story. The protagonist's Sei Satou-like best friend, especially, would have been an interesting character to create a story around, but the main plot (girl with low self-esteem discovers untapped superpower) was pretty "meh" to me. The art was fine, but it mostly didn't rise above mediocre.

Speak Love by Greyscaled: A mature, bittersweet story about a couple's therapist who discovers that her lover has been using her as the "other woman" when said lover and her original girlfriend come to her for help to save their relationship. Not quite. -_-;; The story is actually told from the point of view of the cheating a----le, who did not get the ending that I felt that she deserved. Setting that caveat aside, this was pretty good, especially considering that it evoked some strong sympathy from me for the two women who were two-timed. (The therapist got the better deal in the end, imo.)

"3oth Christmas" by Eriko Tadeno: Honestly, this is probably my favorite story in YM6. This O. Henry-like story follows an elderly couple celebrating their 30th anniversary on Christmas Eve, with one of them planning to buy her wife a ring (being in Japan, they can't legally marry, but I think that "partner" sounds a little weird... I associate the word with people who I work on school projects with... ^^;; the characters are basically married) to celebrate, using money that she's saved over the past ten years. Outside the jewelry shop where she wants to buy the ring, she gets robbed of her money and tries to get it back in time to buy the ring for the anniversary. The art is fairly typical josei style without being generic, and some of the facial expressions are adorable. ^^ This is just a super-cute story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, while still maintaining a sense of continuity in the character's lives.

Story: Variable from D to A.
Art: Variable from D- to B+
Overall: Variable from D- to A...I guess that for an all around grade, I'll go with B

Like a box of randomly assorted chocolates, there are a few stories that I really like, a few stories that are okay, and a few stories that I don't care for in YM6, as with virtually any manga anthology. Keeping that in mind, it's a solid pick for yuri fans, especially those who want something different from the norm.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Yayyy!! ^ ^ Sasameki Koto Anime Character Designs!!

Yes!! Finally!! ^___^ I've been dying to see the character designs for the upcoming Sasameki Koto anime! Like the Aoi Hana website, the Sasameki Koto website has been updated to include the anime character designs for Sumika and Ushio.
*compares anime and manga character designs* I approve! ^^

Unfortunately, the seiyuu cast hasn't been announced yet and the character designs for Tomoe, Miyako, Aoi, Kiyori, etc haven't been shown yet. What I would love to see is an animated trailer, and some sort of airing date. While I'm confident that Aoi Hana is in good hands, I'm a little apprehensive about Sasameki Koto's adaptation, since its director, Eiji Suganuma, has a pretty sparse history of directing. Hopefully he'll do a (very, very) good job of adapting the source material. If not, heads will roll. ^^ (I'm kidding, of course... ^^;;) I should really stop comparing the anime adaptations of Sasameki Koto and Aoi Hana, even though I'm doing it almost reflexively... -_-;; (Because I love both manga series equally.) Anyway, I'm massively looking forward to this!!

Yuri Manga: Moonlight Flowers

After watching the greatness of the latest shiny new Haruhi Suzumiya episode, I'm going to take a little blast to the past by discussing this gem: Moonlight Flowers by Mutsumi Tsukumo.

Serialized in the josei manga magazine Office You from 1989 to 1991, Moonlight Flowers is a very quintessentially old school, but very good take on a concept that has been done to death in lesbian-themed media - a married woman leaves her husband for a single, openly self-identified lesbian who she falls in love with, and the two face the hurdles of establishing their relationship.

The story begins with Sahoko, a 25 year-old woman who is about marry a man named Kanou who she met through a miai (a meeting for a prospective arranged marriage). At her high school reunion, she meets her classmate and former best friend Kaoru, who she once acted in a school play with, Romeo and Juliet. (Kaoru was the Romeo to Sahoko's Juliet. ^^) After a besotted Kaoru kissed Sahoko in high school, however, Sahoko ran away and they became estranged. Sahoko learns that Kaoru is now successfully running a flower shop where she makes floral arrangements for hotels, restaurants, weddings (hah ^^), etc. Sahoko asks Kaoru to do the floral arrangements at the wedding, and Kaoru, who is still in love with Sahoko, reluctantly makes Sahoko a beautiful bouquet. (... ;__;) Sahoko nearly breaks down right before the ceremony because she doesn't want to go through with it but she does, after being comforted by Kaoru. (Damn it!! > <) As the months after the wedding go by, Sahoko simply can't enjoy sex with her husband. As she begins to spend more time with Kaoru, her husband takes a mistress, which Sahoko discovers before leaving her husband and staying at Kaoru's place. Sahoko and Kaoru officially become a couple, but when Sahoko returns to her husband's place to get her things, her husband stops her, rapes her (which isn't shown graphically, thank god), and keeps her confined in the house. Kaoru tries to help Sahoko from outside the apartment, but Kanou only relents after Sahoko talks him out of it. Sahoko and Kaoru can finally get together, and end up as a happy couple. But that's only the first half of the story. There's a second part, titled "Midnight Flowers" (the first part was titled "Moonlight Flowers"), that shows a young Kaoru in college coming to terms with her sexuality as she discovers that her boyfriend's young stepmother Kayoko is having an affair with an art gallery owner named Kyouko. And they look an awful lot like Sahoko and Kaoru. The affair ends in tragedy, but Kaoru learns from it and moves on believing that someday she can win over her high school love, Sahoko. And then there is a bonus chapter featuring an unrelated stand-alone story. There are a lot of very good things about this book: the dreamy, romantic atmosphere conveyed through Mutsumi Tsukumo's soft-lined artwork; the refreshingly mature feel of the story and characters; and the honest, yet eloquent and (sometimes embarrassingly) romantic way in which the characters articulate their feelings. There were many poignant moments that stuck in my mind after read this: Sahoko reflecting on how she needs to change as she becomes an adult ("Time that belonged only to me... It's time to bid farewell to all of those things."), Kaoru's struggle over making Sahoko's bouquet, and Kayoko and Kyouko's meeting on the beach at night, among others. This is simply a heart-tugging romantic melodrama done right. Mostly. There are a couple of significant negatives, however. While Mutsumi Tsukumo managed to pull off an overused plot while making it feel organic and fairly fresh, she slipped into cliche territory by occasionally turning Kaoru into a soapbox for why all men are oppressive slave masters, and they suck, and so on. The story is very well written, but affirming the women's relationships with each other by turning the men into the big bad scary "other" doesn't sit well with me (granted, I have the luxury of living in a more open-minded time and place). Given the context in which this manga was created, Kaoru's world view is somewhat understandable, while not being a viewpoint that I would endorse- although I still prefer the far more empathetic depictions of men found in yuri manga today like Girl Friends, Sasameki Koto, Aoi Hana, etc. Plus, given how Moonlight Flowers seems to be striving to be fairly realistic (by manga romance standards), it was a little disappointing how at the very end of "Midnight Flowers", Kaoru arrives at the conclusion that if she devotes her life to her ostensibly one-sided love for Sahoko, it will be requited. (And poof! Sahoko does return her love.) Kaoru's "Wish hard enough, and your love will be returned" platitude feels out of character, and makes the story, in retrospect, feel a little too much like a (very well done) exercise in vicarious wish fulfillment for the author and readers.

If it weren't for those two flaws, this manga would probably earn an A. Nevertheless, this is a very good, mature manga that every yuri fan who truly wants to consider themselves connoisseurs of the genre (Can yuri itself really be considered a genre?) should read, and a must-read for shoujo/josei yuri fans.

Story: B+
Art: B+
Overall: B+

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Average Animators' Salaries in Japan o_o;;

Labor Group: Animators in Their 20s Earn US$11,600 a Year (Updated)

Wow. No wonder the average frame rate in anime productions is so low. If I earned only $11,600 freaking dollars a year, I wouldn't care about the frame rates either.

Just kidding. I know that there are numerous other factors at play in how the final production looks: budget restrictions, very limited time constraints, and probably other factors that I'm unaware of. At that salary, anime is clearly a labor of (very, very) deep love for those who decide to pursue a career in it. Especially when one watches a series or movie that clearly received unusually fastidious care in the animation department- like Kyoto Animation's productions, Kamichu, Seirei no Moribito, and so on. Hopefully this article will make some of the parasite fans (anime "fans" who don't support the series they enjoyed watching via fansubs when said series become available legally) feel some modicum of remorse. But I doubt it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Yuri Manga: Honey & Honey

It’s kind of a weird quirk, but I love seeing manga, anime, book, and movie titles named after food. ^^;; Strawberry Shake Sweet, Antique Bakery, Tokyo Marble Chocolate, Honey and Clover, and so on. Added to the list is Sachiko Takeuchi’s autobiographical comic essay Honey & Honey. (Yum! ^^)

Unlike Rica Takashima's Rica'tte Kanji!?, Honey & Honey is a full-color manga that was written primarily to explain lesbian life to straight female readers using short, humorous slice-of-life vignettes.

The story is about Sachiko, an openly self-identified "neko" (more of less the Japanese equivalent of "femme") lesbian who attends a mixer and meets Masako, a "tachi" (equivalent of "butch") bisexual woman who becomes Sachiko's girlfriend. Sachiko and Masako go through life- going to the movies, shopping, hanging out with friends, and other day-to-day activities, while Sachiko occasionally pauses to explain various lgbt terms (sort of an "LGBT 101") to the reader.

Most of Sachiko's exposition may seem obvious to lgbt people, but in fact, it's pretty enlightening to many non-lgbt people, especially people who don't personally know any gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individuals. For example, one time this past year I explained what the term "out" means to my best friend who didn't know what it meant when I used it in a conversation. I was surprised that she didn't know, but only because I'm used to knowing that sort of thing. (Actually, today we debated about whether lilies or roses are more representative of the yuri genre. I argued for lilies, but she argued for roses because most of the yuri she's seen- like Utena, Marimite, and the Haruka/Michiru scenes in Sailor Moon- is chock full of rose imagery instead. But I digress. ^^)

When read after Rica'tte Kanji!?, which was made in the mid-90's, Honey & Honey provides a sort of barometer of how attitudes towards lgbt people have improved in Japan since the 90's, however incrementally, for those interested in that subject. Despite Sachiko's joie de vivre, Honey & Honey directly addresses the issues faced by sexual minorities in Japan (and many other places, really) without getting on a soapbox.

The art isn't anything to write home about. The backgrounds are sparse and the character designs are pretty basic, and very different from the usual "manga" style. Nothing special, but Sachiko Takeuchi makes good use of facial expressions, especially in comedy moments, giving each character his/her own signature "looks."

For some reason, I like Sachiko quite a lot, especially her dry humor. The other characters are nearly all likeable as well, aside from the odd sexist comment to pop out of Masako's mouth. ("I play the tachi role, so you should join my family and take my name!" What the hell? ^^) And, despite the positive portrayal of FtM people, I don't like the use of "Gender Identity Disorder" to refer to transgendered people, but that's a nearly unavoidable reflection of the context in which Honey & Honey was created, unfortunately.

For what it is, Honey & Honey is very good: a friendly tour through lgbt life in Japan with a group of pleasant characters.

Story: B
Art: B-
Overall: B

Girl Friends chapter 22!!! ^ ^ *convulses with fan glee*

Kyahh!! XD *flails* I just read Girl Friends chapter 22!!!!! All hail Milk Morinaga-sensei!!!! Yes, scanlated... I am lying in wait for volume 3, which should pop up soon, I would think.... After chapter 22 though, I can't wait for volume 4!! @_@ And it'll be at least 7 months, probably, until that volume comes out. ^^ lol I normally would not link to a scanlation site, but... Girl Friends is that darn good. (Edit on 02/03/2009: I've removed the link to the scanlation site.) I did not expect Mari to react that way to what Akko did in chapter 21!! o__o;; *simultaneously screams in frustration and giggles over the greatness of this chapter* If you haven't read Girl Friends yet, or dropped it early on when it seemed like it might stay all doom and gloom, it is so worth it. Hop on the Girl Friends bandwagon, and keep up with the monthly installments of one of the top yuri dramas that everyone in the fandom is keeping an eye on. *prays for an anime adaptation of Girl Friends- hey, it's happening for Aoi Hana and Sasameki Koto, right?*

And if you like this fabulous manga, you can buy the volumes here on the Yuricon shop, which is affiliated with Amazon Japan. Here's one unusual analogy I use for people who don't understand the value of purchasing the media that they profess to love: If I were to get hit by a truck and die, Milk Morinaga would lose a small portion of the income that she uses to pay her bills/make more manga. If a random scanlation reader who doesn't buy the manga gets hit by a truck, it's really no loss at all to Morinaga, because that person never supported her work. So don't be a lamprey of the manga world, and support the manga/mangaka that you're a fan of.

*coughs* Anyway, back to Josei Week. ^^;;

BGM- "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" by Utada Hikaru

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Yuri Manga: Rica'tte Kanji!? (English)

This week is Josei Week on Yuri no Boke! For those unaware, josei manga is manga aimed at women 18-30- although people outside of that age and gender range obviously enjoy it, as with any genre of entertainment. Like shoujo, josei tends to focus on relationships, but unlike shoujo, josei bills itself as having more ostensibly realistic and mature stories starring adult women (although there are high school aged protagonists) who tend to be more competent and pragmatic than their shoujo counterparts (from what I've read)- so, less heroines sans two brain cells to rub together who find themselves surrounded by lovestruck vampire bishonen, bishonen who transform into cute SD animals, Celestial Warrior bishonen, bishonen hosts, etc. I've just really been in a josei-reading mood lately, so I decided to dedicate this week to one of the rarest of manga breeds- josei yuri manga, beginning with Rica'tte Kanji!?

Rica'tte Kanji!?
by Rica Takashima is a cute, feel-good romp through the Tokyo lesbian scene, as filtered through the eyes of a newcomer, a bubbly college student named Rica. Rica is attending a women's college to study early children's education. She has never met another out lesbian before (ah, nostalgia...) and visits Shinjuku's Nichoume district (Tokyo's lgbt neighborhood). On her first night there, she makes several new friends, including Miho, the down-to-earth fine arts college student who eventually becomes Rica's girlfriend. Each chapter presents a slice of Rica's life, whether it's her first "date" with a woman who isn't exactly what she seems, Christmastime, or Rica's plans after college.

It's a really cute story, frequently punctuated by gentle humor that, like the humor in Aoi Hana, is mostly the kind that makes one thoughtfully chuckle instead of laugh out loud. Rica is a cute, likeable (argh, must stop using "cute" > <) protagonist whose gung-ho enthusiasm and mild naïvete, surprisingly, never becomes irritating or cloying. Her interactions with the pragmatic former playgirl Miho and the other characters (my favorite among them probably being the glamorous Kaoru) are nearly all pleasant and laid-back. I especially like how Rica'tte Kanji!? occasionally touches on social issues in a lighthearted manner without making light of them, like how Rica's classmates forgo the careers they trained for in college in favor of a job that they would be more typically encouraged to do.

Rica'tte Kanji?! was remarkable in the context in which it was first published in Japan. It ran in two Japanese lesbian women's magazines, Phryne and Anise, from 1995 to 1996, when the only other happy, professionally published non-pornographic yuri manga (as far as I know) was in the relationship between two side characters in Sailor Moon. Even after the excellence and positive portrayals found in numerous later yuri manga, this still provides a good, mature, realistic josei yuri manga read- starring an openly self-identified lesbian, to boot.

My only two caveats are that the characters' exposition is sometimes too blatant (the opposite of most manga ^^;;), and I'm caught between finding the art too simplistic, or a cute (gahh...) stylized alternative to "typical" manga style.

Story: A-
Art: B
Overall: B+ before a year at college, A after a year at college

A solid title, especially for fans of josei or yuri or anybody curious about lgbt life in Japan.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Five Day Hiatus

This picture isn't relevant, but I like it.

From tomorrow through Saturday I'm going on a trip, so I won't be posting for the next five days. After that, this blog will be back in action. ^^

Midseason Update: Best Spring 2009 Anime

lol I love Saki and Akira.

Spring 2009 has been horribly skimpy on the yuri, but there have still been several strong offerings so far. I haven't sampled every new spring show (partly because I pick and choose from Anime News Network's spring preview guide early on, and partly because I have a life), so I may have missed a gem or two. (For example, Cross Game received very good reviews, but I didn't watch it because I'm not very interested in baseball anime.)

All reviews are subjective, and like every other reviewer on Earth, I have biases and preferences. So, that will obviously figure into my reviews.

Eden of the East
Eden of the East is the first completely original production to air on the Noitamina time block on Fuji TV. I admire Noitamina for providing quality programs for a different demographic than the usual otaku and kids, but the sheer excellence of this show still blew me away. The story is about a girl named Saki who goes on a college graduation trip to Washington D.C. and, while being bothered by two police officers for trying to throw a coin into the White House fountain, she sees a naked guy cheerfully waving a gun across the street. After many a mishap (and Saki giving the guy some clothes to wear), the guy, who is an amnesiac who discovers that he had wiped his own memories but decides to adopt the name "Akira Takizawa", returns to Japan with Saki. At the airport, they see on the news that Japan has been attacked by a missile strike, but nobody died as a result. After they return, as Saki aimlessly searches for a job, she and Akira go about trying to figure out what he was involved in before he wiped his memory. Despite the premise, this is a pretty funny, whimsical show, with some interesting, non-didactic commentary on issues that affect Japanese youth today (this is a very good op-ed from the Asashi Shimbun that illustrates some of those issues). Each episode is consistently entertaining and well-written, with charming character designs by Chica Umino and strongly likeable characters. Action, humor, romance, and political intrigue in a show that never takes itself too seriously: there's something for everyone.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
As both a remake and the highest profile title to premiere this season (after Dragonball Kai, probably), FMA: Brotherhood has some enormous shoes to fill. Thankfully, after the first episode, it's about as faithful an adaptation of the original manga as one could ask for, and people who haven't read the FMA manga should appreciate it also. Most people should be familiar with the story: In a fantasy world where people can transmute objects through alchemy, two brothers try to use alchemy to bring their dead mother to life. They fail, and the older brother, Ed, loses his right arm and left leg and the younger brother, Al, loses his entire body. Ed affixes Al's soul to a soul of armor and become a state alchemist so that he can find a way to restore their bodies. That this title is worth watching shouldn't be a surprise to most people. It didn't quite reach excellence until episode 4, but since then it's been great. Even though I know what's going to happen (since this is staying really faithful to the manga), it's still a lot of fun to see the characters who, imo, made FMA the success that it is, animated again.

Ristorante Paradiso
A wonderfully atmospheric (and more blatantly josei than Eden of the East) title that didn't impress me in its first episode, but hooked me from episode 2 on. ^^ Ristorante Paradiso stars Nicoletta, a twenty one year old woman whose grandmother raised her because her mother left her as a child to remarry a man in Rome who doesn't want to marry a divorcee. Nicoletta goes to the restaurant that the man owns, Casseta dell'orso, to spill the beans about her mother's past, but her mother convinces her not to, and for the time being, Nicoletta stays mum and gets a job as a cook at the restaurant. Oh, and the restaurant's shtick is that all of the servers are distinguished gentlemen who wear glasses, making it *ahem* especially popular with women. ^^;; Despite the, uh, unique reverse harem premise (hence my lukewarm reception of episode 1; I feared that Nicoletta's family drama was going to get marginalized in favor of the glasses-wearing oyaji), the show refreshingly focuses on Nicoletta figuring out her direction in life while trying to decide how to deal with her mother's situation. (I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, especially since two of the restaurant staff have figured it out by episode 6! > <;;) Pleasantly, Ristorante Paradiso also reminds me of my trip to Italy last summer. Oh, and I realized while watching episode 4 that this show actually features a middle-aged woman who is married and has a successful career as a lawyer at the same time!! Isn't that insane? :) Granted, she is an Italian woman living in Italy, and she left her kid...but it's still a nice change of pace in my book.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Yuri Manga: Hanjuku Joshi volume 1

Hanjuku Joshi (半熟女子 or "Half-baked Women") is one of three Yuri Hime manga being serialized via cell phone instead of in a magazine, and then later collected in tankoubon format. The other two are Gokujou Drops by Mikuni Hazime (which I flat out didn't like, even though plenty of yuri fans seem to ^^;;) and Aishiwo tome: kimi ga kokoro wa by Itsumi Takahashi, which I haven't read yet.

Different people can have wildly different interpretations of a work, so many people may disagree with what I think of Hanjuku Joshi, but without further ado...

The story is about Yae, a girl beginning her first year of high school at an all girls' school. Instead of the romanticized, pristine image of girls' schools (*cough*Lillian*cough*) normally found in anime and manga, Yae finds that the girls' school she attends is...pretty much just a normal school where the some of the girls tend to be more laid back because they aren't worrying about keeping up appearances around guys. lol Added to her bewilderment with her new school, Yae is a short, curvy, very cute and girly-looking girl (with fluffy, wavy hair, a high-pitched voice, large breasts, etc) who hates her appearance and wishes that she looked more like a tomboy. She makes friends with Chitose, a gregarious short-haired athlete who is a lot more comfortable in her own skin. The two eventually go from being friends to becoming a couple, and discover that Mari, another student who called them "half-mature girls" who are "playing at love" is, ironically, in a relationship with her closeted female teacher, Edogawa-sensei. Oh, snap. The manga then follows the two couples as they develop their relationships and resolve their issues while going through school life.

This manga was a nice surprise. I read it before being cognizant of Akiko Morishima's reputation as a highly regarded mangaka who draws humorous, well-written stories with pretty, unique, soft-looking character designs. And she definitely delivers. The all-girls' school setting has been done to death in yuri but, imo, Morishima subverts the cliches associated with it pretty well in Hanjuku Joshi.

From what I understand, it is a traditional view in Japan that it's okay for teenage/pre-teen girls to get crushes on other girls/women because it is an ephemeral phase that they will outgrow before inevitably marrying a man and having his babies. (Sort of like a butterfly leaving its pupa, I guess. To become a miserable, closeted housewife butterfly who vicariously remembers her better days through yuri manga and light novels.) And in girls' school yuri series especially, many people seem to/want to assume that the characters in same-sex relationships are only in them because there aren't any guys around. (Have the people who seriously believe that ever actually been to a girls' school? -_-;;) Morishima addresses and deconstructs this idea by making one of her characters, Mari, essentially regurgitate this idea to Chitose and Yae before heading off to a love hotel with a guy, only to show later that Mari is in a relationship with a woman, and never ended up sleeping with the guy she was heading to the love hotel with because she just isn't attracted to men. Maybe I'm seeing what I want to see, but I interpreted that as Morishima's damning commentary on the "not real love" idea associated with girls' school yuri. And there's some identity elsewhere in the cast as well. But honestly, if I see a manga character who only shows interest in a woman/women, I assume she's gay, unless some crazy explanation is given for it, like Yasuna's sight disorder in Kashimashi; if she shows interest in both a man/men and a woman/women, like Yasuko from Aoi Hana, I assume she's bi; if she only shows interest in a man/men, like Risa from Lovely Complex, I assume she's straight. And if she doesn't show any interest in anyone, whatever. lol

Setting that digression aside, this is a funny, well-written, enjoyable manga with characters who are easy to follow. Yae and Chitose provide a sweet, lighthearted look at high school love, and Mari and Edogawa-sensei's relationship, while a lot thornier and less, um, ethical (both the teacher-student thing and the fact that Edogawa-sensei has a boyfriend), provides an interesting foil. The peripheral characters are pleasant also, especially Chitose's crazy family.

The art is pretty, as usual for Akiko Morishima. The layouts flow nicely, and Morishima's distinctively airy, whimsical character designs are appealing. As usual for Yuri Hime manga, the tankoubon for this series is larger than most tankoubon you'll see in stores (or order online), which is really nice- to me, at least. Yuri Hime manga tend to run at 900 yen, while most manga are approximately 400-600 yen, but the larger size is well worth a few more hundred yen (or a few dollars). Seriously, if you read and enjoyed the scanlations for this entire volume, you should buy it (or have somebody get it as a gift, rent it, something legal) when possible so that Akiko Morishima can get some benefit from working for your enjoyment. I generally read scanlations to try out new series, and if I like a manga, I'll buy it so that the mangaka who made it can continue creating good manga. It is my policy on this blog to only post manga reviews of manga that I own or have borrowed from a friend (as I did with Kuchibiru Tameiki Sakurairo).

Anyway, this was a very good volume by Morishima, and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what happens to Yae and Chitose (and the tangled emotional mess that is Mari and Edogawa-sensei) in volume 2, which is coming out this August.

Story: B+
Art: A-
Overall: A-

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Seiyuu List for Aoi Hana

The seiyuu for the main characters of the Aoi Hana anime have recently been announced, and the choices are pretty unexpected.

Ai Takabe as Fumi Manjoume
Yuuko Gibu as Akira Okudaira
Chiemi Ishimatsu as Yasuko Sugimoto
Yui Horie as Kyouko Ikumi

Interestingly, the actress who plays Fumi has been in cast in several live dramas prior to this, but no anime. This reminds me of The Girl Who Lept Through Time, which also used drama actors instead of "typical" anime seiyuu to voice the characters which gave the voices a more naturalistic sound, in my opinion. I think that that's what the people who cast the VAs for Aoi Hana are going for for Fumi. Yuuko Gibu and Chiemi Ishimatsu are anime seiyuu, but they haven't been in any well-known major roles, yuri or otherwise (mostly one episode/bit roles in various series), so it will feel kind of "fresh" to listen to them as well, sans heavily preconceived notions about the "types" of characters they usually play (as opposed to the usual pool: Noto Mamiko, Mai Nakahara, Kana Ueda, Ayako Kawasumi, Rie Kugimiya, etc). Yui Horie is the only seiyuu who has voiced a large number of prominent anime roles (but only one yuri role), like Tohru Honda in Fruits Basket, Yasuna Kamiizumi in Kashimashi, Yuuki Cross in Vampire Knight, etc, etc, etc, so it will be pretty interesting to hear her as Kyouko.

I'm a little curious as to exactly how this is going to be marketed- for example, to what extent it will be marketed to otaku viewers versus more mainstream viewers (like the target demographic for Noitamina), since a) even though yuri anime is normally heavily marketed toward otaku, b) the voice cast is light on otaku fan favorites and employing a drama actress to play the lead, and c) Aoi Hana runs in Manga Erotics F (a manga magazine that targets both men and women), the same magazine that ran Ristorante Paradiso, which is currently airing as an anime marketed as a josei series.

BGM- "Apple and Cinnamon" by Utada Hikaru

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Yuri Manga: Aoi Hana volume 1

Aoi Hana (青い花) by Takako Shimura is a quietly impressive romantic drama and, in this reviewer's opinion, a classic in the making. The drama is organic and affecting, the characters are nearly all likeable (save for one who only appears at the beginning of this volume), and the entire story thrums with a gentle, quietly realistic atmosphere.

The story is about Fumi Manjoume, an introverted, bookish teenage girl who is beginning her first year of high school at Matsuoka Girls' High School. She begins the school year with her heart broken by a previous relationship (the details of which I will not spoil for anybody who hasn't read this). At about the same time, she reconnects with her best friend from ten years ago, Akira Okudaira (nicknamed "Ah-chan"), who is now attending Fujigatani Girls' Academy as a first-year high school student. As they reconnect, Fumi falls in love with a third-year at her high school, the uber-cool Yasuko Sugimoto, who used to attend Fujigatani. While Fumi tries to balance her renewed friendship with Akira with her new relationship with Yasuko, she also makes friends with Akira's friend at Fujigatani, Kyouko Ikumi, who is in love with Yasuko while being engaged to someone else. Oh dear. ^^ And there's more to this love polygon that I can't mention without giving away massive spoilers. ^_^ *fangirls*

But seriously, disregarding my weakness for convoluted love polygons that blindside me with new twists, the execution is what elevates Aoi Hana above the ilk of ensemble romances like, say, Strawberry Panic or Fushigi Yuugi (yes, Fushigi Yuugi). Rather than allow its characters to wallow in over-exaggerated melodrama, the characters in Aoi Hana take a more mature approach to their problems while still being realistically insecure, sometimes irrational teenagers. And seeing the layers peeled away from the various characters adds to a lot of the fun of reading this series for me. My favorite part probably being the irony of how Fumi and Yasuko are both unaware of each other's first- and in Fumi's case, second- loves. And Akira makes a great foil for Fumi. :)

Parts of this manga also reminded me of how it felt to briefly live in Japan for a semester in high school. Not the romance, ^^;; but some of the other interactions (like among the students, or Fumi and Akira's mothers). And even though this is completely irrelevant, one of the teachers in this series looks just like one of my former teachers in Japan, only a little younger. (It's weird... -.-;; lol) Plus, I just think it's neat that the story takes place in Kamakura. We have more than enough manga set in Tokyo.

Takako Shimura's spare, soft-lined art fits the story like a glove. She's excellent at conveying the characters' emotions using facial expressions and body language, without ruining the visuals with unnecessary clutter (like screentones all over the place). My only caveat for this title is that when first starting it, it's a little difficult to keep track of who-likes-who-and-goes-to-which-school, but that's really insignificant. If you like mature romantic dramas like the Tokyo Marble Chocolate OVA or Maison Ikkoku, you should definitely check this title out.

Story: A
Art: A-
Overall: A

Edit: Eek, I forgot that there's an alternative likely spelling for the characters used to spell "Fujigatani": "Fujigaya." I'll wait and see how it's pronounced in the anime, and then go with that spelling.

Later Edit: It seems that "Fujigaya" is the more likely spelling, so I'm going with that name for Ah-chan's school from here on.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Midseason Update: Hanasakeru Seishonen Anime (through episode 5)

This picture pretty much summarizes my feelings about this show.

Several weeks ago I reported, like a breathless traveler discovering water in a desert (or, rather more like a tourist discovering a completely non-sleazy anime shop in Akihabara), that one of this season's shoujo offerings, Hanasakeru Seishonen, had some pretty nice, if one-sided yuri in episode 1. About halfway through the show, I can say that not an iota of yuri, at this point, has appeared since then, and the show itself, which I found entertaining at first, promptly veered off into one of my least favorite shoujo drama cliche paths: namely, that the heroine Kajika tries to reform a guy with a crappy personality (shown in the picture above) for the thinnest of reasons: she thinks he's been inhabited by the spirit of her dead snow leopard, going so far as to call him her former pet's name, Mustafa. Understandably, he's creeped out by it at first, but eventually allows her to use the name after she "reforms" him. But how the hell Kajika can still like and want to help the guy when he's allowed three women to commit suicide in front of him (and almost allowed a fourth, but Kajika stopped her) is beyond me. Oh, but he has family issues. (His mother committed suicide.) *facepalms*

Storylines like this make me want to bang my head against a wall: Hot Gimmick (why did I like this piece of misogynistic crap in middle school!? *kicks volumes*), Hana Yori Dango, and now Hanasakeru Seishonen...why do so many women enjoy reading story lines in which women find guys who treat them like crap appealing? (As evidenced by the high sales numbers of HG and HYD.) Or, in the case of Gokujou Drops, women find women who treat them like crap appealing. (Maybe it's the "rubberneck effect"- like when people slow their cars down to look at the scene of an accident.) I know that this title is escapist fictional entertainment, but I simply don't enjoy that type of story.

Thankfully, Kajika moves on in episode 5 to visit her bodyguard Li Ren's home, and meets the next, somewhat more palatable guy in her harem. (Although I really don't care for how he derisively calls her "woman" when he first meets her.) Unfortunately, the comparatively decent new storyline takes a serious hit when it's revealed that Li Ren's uncle's girlfriend had an illicit relationship with him when he was 13 (wtf), and his uncle knows and still wants her around. (Wtf!?!) Oh, and Li Ren said he wanted it because she had all the "poisonous qualities of a woman", whatever that means. Way to trivialize a criminal offense, Hanasakeru. (Not to mention the fact that Li Ren had been my favorite character until then. -_-;;) The episode finally ends with Kajika on the road talking to her new bishonen love interest, before cheerily asking him how the head cloth he gave her looks, and turning around to see a truck about to mow her down. Unintentionally, this was the most amusing bit of the episode.

Being based on an early 90's shoujo manga, it does have a somewhat charming "old school" vibe, but its shortcomings eventually overwhelmed the enjoyment it once held for me. Just go watch Sailor Moon, Oniisama E, Ayashi no Ceres, Revolutionary Girl Utena, or any other number of shows to see old school shoujo (or old school shoujo yuri) done right.

Story: C-
Art: B
Overall: C-

The best anime aimed at women by far this season (perhaps the best spring 2009 show, period) is Eden of the East (I'm assuming it's aimed predominantly at women, since it's airing in the noitaminA time block), followed by the still quite good Ristorante Paradiso (which, interestingly, runs in the same magazine as Aoi Hana).
Akira (left) and Saki (right) in Eden of the East.
Nicoletta in Ristorante Paradiso.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Yay!! Aoi Hana Anime Character Designs

Akira (left) and Fumi (right).
The pictures above are newly released promo pics of the character designs that are being used for the Aoi Hana anime. I found them posted on the forum. Thanks goes to the forum user Albatross for posting them there! ^^

I cannot wait to see this air in July! XD *crosses fingers for a good adaptation*

Yuri Manga: Girl Friends volume 2

It's great to be done with my college classes and home for the summer! ^_^ Without further ado...

As any fan of Milk Morinaga's Girl Friends would likely agree, this volume is the hardest volume to read. Not because it's bad, by any stretch. This volume marks a definite improvement over the first volume, in terms of more focused story-telling, tighter pacing, and a move away from the more lighthearted set of clothing and make-up themed chapters that make up most of volume 1.

Volume 2 begins with Mari processing the kiss she gave Akko when Akko was asleep after drinking alcohol at the end of volume 1. When she confesses what she did to Akko, Akko is greatly relieved because she thought that Mari's strange behavior since that day was a result of something Akko might have done when she was drunk. lol Akko laughs off Mari's concerns, telling Mari that friends kiss all the time. Mari's (and my) reaction is: Really?! o_o;; But Mari realizes that her kiss wasn't just a "friend" kiss, and comes to recognize (and angst like crazy over) her love for Akko. Unfortunately, Mari attempts to cover her feelings by dating a guy who has a crush on her named Harada in the fruitless hope that she'll fall for him instead, since he is a nice guy who genuinely likes her. The volume ends with Akko helping Mari prepare for a date by doing her make-up (in a really poignant sequence of images), before Mari breaks down and kisses Akko. She says that her love can never be fulfilled, then walks out in the rain. (Of course it's raining right then. ^^;;)

Milk Morinaga does an excellent job of writing this story arc. Mari's realization and denial of her feelings reflect those felt by many gay teenagers with surprisingly dead-on accuracy. When I originally read the chapters in this volume, at the point when Mari began dating Harada, I nearly gave up because "closeted gay girl starts trying to like guys" is one of my least favorite plot devices, and if this were written by a mangaka with less skill than Morinaga, I probably would have stopped reading. However, the amazing thing about Girl Friends is: every time I think that the plot is going to go to hell in a hand basket, Morinaga subverts my expectations brilliantly, like a cruel puppet master compelling me to keep reading. At this point, the characters are empathetic and human enough that one continually feels compelled to see what will happen to them. Thankfully, Morinaga provides relief from the Mari-angst with some well-placed humor from Mari's friends and Akko (and even some from Mari) that never feels out of place or out of character. This volume is probably the lowest emotional point in the story, and its deliberate pacing has earned it criticism from many of its readers, but in retrospect, it makes the emotional rewards of volume 3 all the sweeter.

And the art is essentially the same as in volume 1. Pretty, crisply drawn, and pleasing to look at. Morinaga uses her normally cute, airy, whimsical style to convey the darker mood of this volume effectively.

Story: B (But an A for the skill with which it's executed.)
Art: B+
Overall: B+

This is one of the few manga volumes that I've liked better after reading it a second time.