Sunday, May 29, 2011

Manga Review: Mars no Kiss

Most yuri fans know Kishi Torajirou's Maka Maka, but Mars no Kiss is also worth checking out. It's a surprisingly good, realistic look at unrequited first love. If that doesn't sell you on it (can't blame you), it also has one of the most beautiful kiss scenes ever drawn in a manga.

Yukari is an outgoing, "rebellious" girl who does the opposite of whatever her over-controlling mom wants. She has a boyfriend who attends university, but all they do is have sex, maybe visit the karaoke box also. Mayuko, the girl assigned to sit next to Yukari in class, is the complete opposite of Yukari. She is reserved and studious, and she and Yukari don't think much of each other.

But. One afternoon, Yukari sees Mayuko kissing a bust of Mars in the school art room (Mars sure is a popular choice), and finds herself entranced. When a teacher walks up behind her, she flinches and runs away, but not before Mayuko sees her.

After realizing that Yukari wouldn't tell anyone about what she saw, Mayuko changes her opinion of Yukari and they become friends. As they get to know each other more, they realize that they have more in common than they had thought. Yukari gives Mayuko advice for when she has a boyfriend someday, priding herself on being more experienced, but when Mayuko does get her own boyfriend, Yukari feels her stomach sink. Knowing that she should feel happy for Mayuko, Yukari soon realizes she is in love with her.

Since Mayuko told Yukari that she kissed the bust of Mars to make sure her glasses wouldn't bump whoever she has her first kiss with (something that made Yukari laugh at the time), Yukari brings a pair of glasses to school and, in the corner of the school library where she and Yukari usually meet, suggests that they "practice"- just to make sure that Mayuko and her boyfriend's glasses won't bump together when they kiss. Mayuko agrees. Their kiss is the most beautifully drawn scene in the book. As Sapphire aptly describes it, "In the scenes leading up to the kiss, I could feel the nervousness and suspense through the characters. Her depictions of the two voluptuous glistening lips semi-touching one another are perfectly frozen to give the reader that sense of a slow intimate softness that comes with kissing a woman. No Frenching….just a gentle and sweet lip to lip."

After the kiss, Yukari blurts out that she likes Mayuko, and then feels like the earth is about to swallow her. Mayuko smiles and tells Yukari that she likes her too, but Yukari realizes that the "like" Mayuko means is different. (Even though Mayuko's perspective of the confession isn't shown, I think she understood what Yukari meant and was letting her down in the gentlest way possible.)

During the next school term, Yukari and Mayuko are assigned to sit next to different people, but they remain friends. Yukari has clearly grown more mature after realizing her feelings for Mayuko; she understands what real love feels like and has ditched her loser boyfriend. (This reviewer likes to think that she will completely get over Mayuko and fall in love with somebody who loves her back someday.)

Even though the girl doesn't get the girl she likes in it, Mars no Kiss is a sweet story with realistic leads who develop beyond their initial archetypes; and it was nice to see that a mangaka known for his more explicit work could pack so much of a punch into a simple first kiss.

Story: B
Art: A-
Overall: B

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Manga Review: Nobara no Mori no Otome-tachi volume 1

Shirasawa Marimo's Nobara no Mori no Otome-tachi ("Maidens in the Forest of Wild Roses") is the latest in a long line of "starry-eyed protagonist attends an elite, lesboriffic girl's school"-type stories, but while it doesn't break any new ground with respect to its basic premise, it's a really fun read.

Cheerful, romantic Saionji Hatsumi is starting her freshman year at Otowa Girls' Academy with her down-to-earth best friend since childhood (we all know what that means), Hanami Sakura. Otowa has an opulent, old-fashioned European look to it, complete with wild roses growing throughout its grounds and a population of proper young ladies who fawn over the Prince of the school, "Izumi-sama." The students pair Izumi with the musumeyaku-like Mayuko, who Izumi has known since childhood. How many clichés did I just fit into this paragraph?  

Nobara is well-written enough to make it all work well, though, with likeable characters and a copious amount of knowing nods to its yuri predecessors, like Izumi fixing Hatsumi's neckerchief, Izumi encountering Hatsumi while riding a white horse, and Hatsumi and Sakura being chosen by Izumi and Mayuko to join Otowa's Nobarakai, or Wild Rose Council.

Hatsumi realizes that she likes Izumi after she and Sakura see Izumi and Mayuko kissing in the school garden. (Following which, Sakura tries to kiss Hatsumi in their room, but then passes it off as a joke.) Hatsumi and Izumi start to conveniently run into each other more and more, and grow increasingly close.

The entire school (courtesy of the school paper) knows that there's something going on between Izumi, Mayuko, and Hatsumi, but Sakura herself is quietly in love with Hatsumi and warns Izumi to stay away from her. Hatsumi blurts out her feelings to Izumi when they're alone one day, but then starts avoiding her because she knows she's taken.

Mayuko turns out to have an arranged fiancé (who she shows around one of Otowa's school festivals), and when Izumi congratulates her on her engagement when they're dancing at the Otowa student ball, Mayuko slaps her and runs away. Izumi retreats to the garden, where Hatsumi follows and Mayuko watches them from a distance, glaring.

Good fun, basically- very much my rose-flavored cup of tea. ^_^ The art is really pretty, with little details like the decor in Hatsumi and Sakura's room, the clothing the characters wear, and even the cake Izumi and Hatsumi order at the school festival effectively bringing Otowa's atmosphere to life and making it clear how much the mangaka is having fun with the setting.

It's also refreshing that Hatsumi's biggest source of angst is that Izumi already has a girlfriend, not that she's a girl too. The fact that Hatsumi has a fangirly image of her school's quirks and traditions (like the tea for new students and the ball) adds to her likeability.

Soapy as Nobara is, it doesn't take itself too seriously and is set for a happy (or not, depending on who you want paired) resolution to its characters' relationships in volume 2. (Although I'm not sure how the situation with Mayuko's fiancé will be resolved.) For now, I'm just enjoying the ride; I haven't read through volume 2 yet, even though I've skimmed it.

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

Monday, May 23, 2011

Manga Review: Poor Poor Lips volume 1

Don't let the "blech"-inducing cover fool you. Poor Poor Lips is a great story- one that makes me smile with each chapter.

Okashi Nako is a poor 21 year-old living alone and looking for a job, since the store she used to work for went under. She sees a newspaper ad for a well-paying sales position at a jewelry store, and decides to check it out.

When the wealthy daughter of the store's owners, Otsuka Ren, cheerfully tells the applicants that she's a lesbian, all of them leave except Nako. Nako and Ren quickly hit it off (although Ren tells Nako, not for the last time, that she isn't her type; it eventually becomes clear that Ren's trying to convince herself more than Nako) and Ren hires Nako.

Like most 4-koma, Poor Poor Lips is a slice-of-life comedy, but unlike most 4-koma, it's actually funny and doesn't focus on the daily minutiae of high school students. (Even if it still has a cutesy-poo art style.) Instead of ambiguous wink-wink nudge-nudge yuri subtext, PPL has an out lesbian protagonist. (Nako doesn't identify as anything, but the series seems to be pointing towards her and Ren getting together at some point.)

A lot of the the humor focuses on the contrast between Ren and Nako's backgrounds and Ren's sexual orientation, but not in a mean-spirited way. (When Ren takes Nako to a nice restaurant, Nako commits a faux pas, but Ren does the same thing to prevent Nako from being embarrassed; when Nako takes Ren to the public bath she uses in a later chapter, she corrects Ren when she makes an ass of herself there.) After Ren falls for Nako, she gets the urge to buy her a lot nice gifts, but is (partly) checked by remembering how her previous girlfriend turned out to be a gold digger. Nako feels awkward about receiving too much from Ren because she doesn't want to feel indebted, and shows Ren how you can show someone you care about them without throwing money at them. (Bah- I'm making this manga sound preachy. > < It's not.)

The side characters include Ren's housekeeper Watase, who gives a tsukkomi "outsider's" perspective to Ren and Nako's antics, Ren's ex, and Nako's old classmate Furui Keiki, the son of the owner of the Furui Cake shop. ("Furui" literally means "old", so....) Furui thinks Nako is being tricked by the Predatory Lesbian Who Wants To Seduce Her (Dun Dun Dun). And even though Nako tells him he's wrong (and the story rightfully paints his comments as asinine), he's actually right, in a way. lol Ren gets jealous (at one point, she swears that his cake shop will never open again...which she achieves by buying out all of its cakes each day and being stuck with a mountain of sweets she has to eat), but Nako isn't interested in him at all. So...yup.

It sounds like the story really steps it up later on, but it's already a treat. Little in it is truly new, but it has enough that is unique (especially for a 4-koma) and enough of a heart to come together really well.

Story: A-
Art: C+
Overall: A-

Friday, May 20, 2011

Check out my guest review!

I wrote a guest review for Okazu that was posted today, about Yoshida Akimi's Sakura no Sono. It's a prime example of how "old" doesn't necessarily equal "good." (Although it isn't bad; just not something that I would reread.)

Back before I started this blog, I also wrote a guest review for Okazu on Hayashiya Shizuru's professional debut, V-Hunter. A prime example of how anything written by Hayashiya equals fun.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Movie Review: Sugar Sweet

This blog has been half-baked these past couple of weeks, and I apologize for that (again). This time it was computer trouble, but that's been resolved. Anyway....

While Sugar Sweet is touted as, "the first Japanese film to be made by and about lesbians", I didn't know about it until I saw it in the Gay & Lesbian section of Netflix streaming last week. (It premiered at the Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in 2001, before playing at other queer and non-queer film festivals around the world, eventually being licensed by Wolfe Video.) Sugar Sweet feels like an earnest attempt to provide Japanese lesbian audiences with something better than the miserable crap that usually passes for Japanese cinema starring queer women, but I still can't say that it was good.

Naomi is a cash-strapped, aspiring filmmaker in a lose-lose situation. She pays the bills by directing movies for a porn company, where her bosses berate her for trying to be too artsy with the porn she makes, in her attempts to infuse it with a lesbian (as opposed to "lesbian") perspective. To be fair to them, her insistence on shooting something high-minded on their dime is the equivalent of applying to cook at an Italian restaurant, then getting annoyed that your boss won't let you make Chinese. Aside from her dippy best friend Azusa, Naomi's lesbian acquaintances think poorly of her for making lesbian porn for men. (From the standpoint that in Japan, lesbianism is most often conflated with perversion and porn, and Naomi's company can validate the images they present in their "lesbian" porn by saying, "Hey, a lesbian made this!")

Through a dating site called "Lavender Paradise", Naomi meets someone named "Sugar", who encourages Naomi's film-making dreams as they exchange email throughout the movie.

Suddenly, Naomi is in charge of a reality show. (Whuh?) Each season follows two people who "happen" to meet and start dating, and the producers want the newest season to star a lesbian couple to boost the show's ratings. Naomi casts Azusa (who has a girlfriend, but Naomi thinks it's harmless since she'll just be acting) and a random woman she sees at a bar, Miki, who works as a company manager by day and an "exotic dancer" at a lesbian club by night. Miki hates the idea of a serious relationship, and Azusa, despite her relationship with her girlfriend, starts having feelings for Miki.

After Miki dumps Azusa on camera (according to the script, Azusa was supposed to dump Miki, to end the show differently from what the audience would expect), Azusa apologizes to her girlfriend and Miki reveals herself to Naomi as "Sugar." The movie ends with Naomi and Miki flirting, Miki resigning from her company job, and Naomi able to create the movie of her dreams now that she has won a film grant.

For the ending alone, this movie is loads better than Kakera and Topless, but it still feels leaden. The acting is so-so, but the actors only have a so-so script to work with. Sugar Sweet has obvious autobio elements, being about a young director who really, really wants to make a groundbreaking lesbian movie, so I feel a little bad about my critique here. (Yes, I bashed Kakera's director's autobio impulses, but that was because she was writing her experiences over someone else's story.)

The cinematography is drab, frequently using garishly colored lighting, dim lighting, slow motion, and a sugar high-like excess of camera movement (e.g. at the beginning of one scene, the camera spins around a room, rendering it into a blur, quickly pauses and cuts a few times, then spins around some more), unmitigated by its awful soundtrack. (This movie's lackluster direction became most painfully apparent when I nodded off during the Big Sex Scene.) Additionally, Sugar Sweet never explains how Naomi suddenly became the director of a TV show, and the porn company thing, which seems like it was just tacked on to the beginning of the movie to make us feel sorry for Naomi, suddenly becomes extraneous.

You can definitely do worse than Sugar Sweet, but you can also do much better if you're looking for a satisfying live action Japanese lesbian movie. (Love My Life, pretty much. If there are other good examples, I'd love to know about them.)

Story: C-
Cinematography: D+
Overall: C-

Friday, May 13, 2011

Girl Friends Drama CD

Finally! (Sorry about not having posted sooner. Finals knocked me out for the early portion of this week and Blogger was down for maintenance yesterday.)

The Girl Friends drama CD isn’t an original story, but an adaptation of the first ten chapters of the manga (ending when Mari realizes that she really is in love with Akko), with some sensible edits. A small handful of scenes, like the ones that include Mari’s and Akko’s families, or Akko showing Mari how to do her nails, are cut, and the dialogue is altered a little to make what is included flow together more smoothly. I have no complaints about the edits, since this CD would have been too slavish of an adaptation otherwise.

I usually prefer drama CDs that add a new story to their franchise’s canon, like the ones made for Fujieda Miyabi’s manga. If I were to choose a portion of the Girl Friends manga to adapt to a drama CD, it would include, say, the story covered by volume 4, when Mari and Akko become a couple.

But as an adaptation of the early material, this drama CD is excellent. All of the seiyuu do a top-notch job and bring the characters to life perfectly. It was a treat to hear how the material being covered would actually sound. And of course, since this CD starts at the beginning of the manga, it’s accessible to people who haven’t read Girl Friends. (Like anybody who hasn’t read Girl Friends is going to buy this. ^^;) As a bonus, the CD cover opens to the short drama CD comic Morinaga Milk drew for the January 2011 issue of Comic High! There’s also a photo of the drama CD cast. The image on the back of the CD case comes from the top of the first page of chapter 11.

While this isn’t the drama CD I would have made for Girl Friends, it was fun to hear the characters and perfect as an adaptation of what it covers.

Overall: B