American manga fandom is an outgrowth of anime, and as such the titles that get licensed over here tend to be the most anime-like. That's changed somewhat in the last few years as publishers have taken chances with the likes of Inio Asano, Shuzo Oshimi, and Nagata Kabi, but by-and-large when you go into the manga section of a bookstore, most of what you're going to see are covers that look similar to what's popular in anime.
This is the exact opposite of Japan, where manga is the mainstream and anime is a niche. There are tons of manga that will never get animated because they aim at a different audience from the folks who stay up late to watch Trapped In Another World with My Grandmother Who Is a Sword. One of the major reasons I'm learning Japanese is so I can read stuff like that, because, quite frankly, modern anime has gotten hella boring. Most of the stuff I want to read is still way beyond my reading level, but with a bit of digging I've managed to find some stuff that's up my alley.
One of those is Change! (Search for Flowers in Parts Unknown to Me) by Masahito Soda. This is published in Gekkan Shounen, the same magazine as Your Lie in April, Norigami, Alive and Beck. That last one is significant, as in many ways Change! is Beck's spiritual successor. It's set in the same sort of gritty Tokyo music scene, with people wearing realistic fashion and listening to the sort of music people in the real world listen to. But this is 2019, not 1999, so instead of alternative rock, our protagonist is on the road to becoming a rapper, and instead of a teenage boy, our hero is a girl.
Shiori is a rich girl attending one of those prestigious all-girls schools that rich bastards send their daughters to so they grow up to be good wives for other rich bastards. She's been so inculcated with submissive attitudes that when we first meet her, she's not just a goody-goody but a full-on narc.
When she catches a classmate named Miki listening to music between classes, Shiori tells her she's supposed to keep her phone in her locker during school, thankyouverymuch, and as a duly appointed hall monitor, she'll have to report Miki if she catches her doing it again.
Miki is one of the school's few rebellious students and does not take this well. She tells Shiori, "You know how I can tell you're a bitch? They've got you in a collar and you don't even know it."
Shiori, who lives such a perfect little princess life that she's never been called a bitch before, is deeply bothered by this and can't stop thinking of it in class. Later, when she goes to the office to file her daily narc report, she overhears a couple teachers talking about a rumor that a student from the school has been seen working at a Shibuya nightclub, which is a big no-no for this kind of school.
Shiori deduces that the student in question must be Miki, and that night she goes out to Shibuya to warn her, thinking that this will prove she's not the school's lapdog. The club in question turns out to be hosting a freestyle rap battle that night, and when Shiori walks in, she's instantly entranced by what she sees. She imagines herself on stage, laying the perfect disses on Miki.
For her own part, Miki is none too enthused to find Shiori there, and the two get into an argument right away. When the MC announces that a last-minute cancellation has opened a slot in the next rap battle, Miki shoves Shiori onto the stage with a shout of "Ojou-sama represent!"
Now, you might think at this point Shiori is going to tap into some previously unknown talent and prove herself a brilliant rapper. If you do, you're way wrong. Shiori completely bombs. She doesn't start off too bad, but without any training she can't keep up with the beat or land her disses at the right moments. To make matters worse, her opponent savages her, calling her flat chested and telling her to go home and make him dinner because rap battles are no place for kittens. In the end, Shiori gets so flustered that she tells the audience none of this matters because rap is meaningless.
You can pretty well guess who the audience picks as the winner.
But even if she's a girl, Shiori is the protagonist of a shounen manga, and that means defeat inspires her. Lucky for her, Miki is also a shounen character, and seeing Shiori get owned is enough for her to let bygones be bygones. She agrees to become Shiori's Obi-Wan and teach her the ways of hip-hop.
I said earlier, I picked Change! to read because I'm looking for manga that's different from what gets published in the US, and that is true enough. But I'm also still learning Japanese, and almost as important as a good story is whether the text will hone my skills. There've been a couple times when I've started a manga and had to stop after a few pages because the writing is over my head. I don't mind a challenge, but too much of one and reading becomes a slog.
In that regard, Change! is a strange beast. This is the most difficult manga I've gotten through so far, in large part because of the hip-hop slang and the fact that a large part of the book consists of rap lyrics, but also because Soda is the sort of writer who likes to play around with language in ways that can be frustrating for newbs.
For instance, Japanese has this weird thing where a word can be written with different kanji to provide different connotations, as with the verb kiku, which can be written as 聞く (to listen, to hear, to ask), 訊く (to ask) or 聴く (to listen). The first form is taught in second grade and is far and away the most common, but Soda is the sort of writer who likes to drop in variant kanji, so for example, when the MC wants the audience attention, he shouts for them to listen up using the 聴 form, which means a word I should be able to read easily needs me to look it up instead. And because JP->EN dictionaries don't always disambiguate the different connotations for kanji like that, I then have to do a Google search to figure out why that particular kanji was used over the normal one.
Soda's writing style can also leave his meaning elusive. For instance, I mentioned earlier that when Shiori catches Miki listening to music between classes, Miki comes back, "You know how I can tell you're a bitch? They've got you in a collar and you don't even know it." But that's a very loose translation on my part. The actual line is something like, "Shitdog, invisible collar attached." I spent twenty minutes trying to figure out what Miki meant before I gave up. It wasn't until a day later that it suddenly hit me.
But despite all that, I blew through this manga in two nights. That's in large part due to the fact that Soda uses lots of big panels and splash pages. The layout above is pretty typical. Even in talky scenes he never goes above five panels on a single page, and about as many speech bubbles; during a rap battle, most pages only have a single panel and no more than two lines. So even if I was struggling with each sentence, it only took me a couple minutes to get through a page.
Of the manga I've tried so far, this is definitely the best. I mean, Sayonara Miniskirt is really good, but it's a bit heavy on the Very Important Message. Change! has similar themes of girls defying societal expectations, but it's fun, too. Even if it isn't very anime-like, I hope a publisher picks it up. I mean, we've finally got the last twenty volumes of Beck, and this would be the perfect follow-up.
Since the last manga I read in Japanese turned out to be a complete and total trashfire, I decided that this time I should find something that's guaranteed to be good. Luckily I came across this article on ANN about the nominees for the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize. After previewing the different series on Bookwalker, I settled on Sayonara Miniskirt as the one closest to my reading level.
It's easy to see why this series is getting critical acclaim as it exudes Importance. Even though it appears in Ribon, a magazine best known for lighthearted shoujo fair like Tokimeki Tonight, Marmalade Boy and Chibi Maruko-chan, Miniskirt has absolutely zero humor. It is one hundred and ninety percent serious.
A series like this could very easily turn into a dull slog, but thankfully Makino tempers the story's self-importance with a solid thriller plot that keeps things from getting bogged down.
In the opening pages, we meet Karen Amamiya, the lead singer for the idol group Pure Club -- though the truth is, the group is largely just an appendix. Karen is the only reason anyone pays attention to Pure Club, to the point that when the group holds a handshake event, her line is longer than the other group members' combined.
But then the story jumps forward six months. Karen has changed her name to Nina Kamiyama and enrolled at a good-but-not-prestigious Tokyo high school. She's cut her hair short like a boy's and taken advantage of the school's dress code, which permits girls to wear the male uniform instead of the standard girl's. At first glance Kamiyama looks like a guy, and most people who don't have class with her assume she is one.
Her issues are exacerbated by news that a girl from a nearby school was assaulted on her way home. The school cancels all after school activities for girls (but pointedly not guys) and asks that they go home in groups whenever practicable. This does no good, and the next day news goes around that Miku was groped on the way to school.
At first everyone in class seems suitably horrified, but then the class incels start sniggering and talking about how lucky the attacker was to get his hands on such a fine piece of ass. When girls tell them to shut up, they double-down by pointing out that Miku modified her skirt to be extra short, so of course a guy's gonna cop a feel. If the girls don't like that, these guys say, they should wear pants like Kamiyama
At which point Kamiyama loses her shit.
Kamiyama comes damn close to kicking the shit out of one of the kids. She gives an impassioned speech about how girls wear skirts because they like to look pretty, not because they care what any damn guy thinks. But before things escalate too far, Miku appears in class and says that they're blowing everything out of proportion, and it isn't that big a deal.
Which brings us to the third part of the storyline: what happened to Pure Club. This is one of those plot points that's clearly supposed to be a surprise, but it comes so early in the story that it's impossible to discuss anything without it. If this ever gets licensed for English release, I'd be surprised if this doesn't get mention on the cover blurb.
You see, Kamiyama dropped out of Pure Club after getting stabbed by a fan at a handshake event. In the aftermath, interest in the group soared, but without Karen Amamiya the group has struggled to maintain that popularity. If they have any hope of continuing, they need her to recover.
But even putting aside her PTSD, Kamiyama's newfound feminism makes it unlikely she'll ever want to return to being an idol. And on top of that, the guy who stabbed her kicked the crap out of security and still hasn't been caught.
The one member of Pure Club who cares about Amamiya as a person and not a necessary component of their success is Sara, but even she doesn't fully accept Amamiya's new identity. She sees "Kamiyama" purely as a cover story for eluding the stalker, and doesn't grok that her friend has fundamentally changed. When she learns about Hikaru, she encourages Kamiyama to pursue him even though Kamiyama is clearly uncomfortable at the idea.
But Sara soon comes to regret her decision when she realizes, "Hey, wait a minute... wouldn't a guy who's a total judo-fanatic be exactly the sort of person capable of kicking the crap out of security guards and evading the police?" Has she inadvertently set her friend up with a psychopath?
Sayonara Miniskirt debuted last August. Four months later, there was a bizarre incident where Maho Yamaguchi, a member of the idol group NGT48, was attacked by two men who apparently got her home address from members of her group. The police and NGT management tried to sweep the incident under the rug, but Yamaguchi went public with the story during an official appearance, causing a huge uproar. Eventually the group forced her to apologize for making a ruckus. Then, just a few months ago, Yamaguchi abruptly announced that she'd be retiring, along with two other members of the group who are almost certainly the ones who gave the attackers her address. (A fourth member was demoted last week after dissing Yamaguchi on social media.)
This is hardly the first incident involving idol groups. Indeed, Kamiyama's backstory is based upon very real incidents where crazed fans attacked idols during public appearances. In 2014, Anna Iriyama and Rina Kawaei of AKB48, were attacked by a guy carrying a hacksaw; in 2017, a man who threw a flare at members of Keyakizaka46 was found to be carrying a five inch blade with which he planned to stab them; and most notably, in 2016 an attacker stabbed singer Mayu Tomita twenty times.
But the Yamaguchi incident is especially noteworthy because it implicates members of the group and their management. The schtick behind the -48 idol groups is that they have dozens of members, divided up into teams that alternate between touring, recording, doing promotional appearances, and playing at a home stage. Including understudies, these groups can have up to a hundred members, and there are over a dozen of these groups operating in the Asia-Pacific region, and even as far west as India. The advantage for management is that with so many performers, the members are interchangeable. Though individual members can become incredibly popular, they never reach the point where their leaving will wreck the group.
In other words, they're pop-stars who are as disposable as the fry cook at McDonald's. If they start demanding better pay or more days off, well, there are five understudies champing at the bit to replace them. Management encourages this with "general elections," where fans can vote on their favorite members, with the results dictating who'll get to perform on the next hit single, get prominent placement in the music videos, and take the center position during performances.
And this seems to be the cause of the Yamaguchi attack. The rivalries within the group reached a point where two members were willing to endanger the life of a third in the hope of moving up the ladder. But the most offensive part of the situation is how the management handled the situation, first trying to cover it up, then, once Yamaguchi went public, forcing her to apologize and then resign. For AKS, the management team behind all the -48 groups, the attack on Yamaguchi was nothing more than a PR crisis.
You see, the Japanese entertainment industry is still regimented the way Hollywood was in the 1940s, with careers squelched at the slightest hint of scandal. Idol groups are particularly draconian, imposing rules against romantic relationships on members. Getting caught with a boyfriend can lead to demotion back to understudy, as has happened to multiple members of these groups over the years.
One especially notorious case is what happened to Minami Minegishi. In 2013 she was one of the top members of AKB48, but then a paparazzo caught her spending the night in a guy's apartment. Once the news broke, AKS demoted her to understudy and posted a video in which she apologized to fans for daring to act like any other young woman in her early twenties.
But what was shocking about the video was that Minegishi had a shaved head. This was supposedly an act of contrition, but shearing has a long history of being used to punish women for sexual transgressions. Most notably, after the liberation of France, partisans forcibly shaved the heads of women who'd slept with Nazis. The message of Minegishi's hairstyle was clear -- a woman's sexuality is something she should be ashamed of.
Management doesn't want their idols to be asexual. Anything but. Idols constantly appear in magazines, videos and photobooks wearing little and teasing more. But the industry still wants them to appear innocent and virginal -- sex symbols that the men in the audience can dream of deflowering. The girls who make up these groups are commodified and sold to audiences with the promise that they will always live up to the impossible image that they're marketed under.
So it's hardly surprising that idol culture is as toxic as the ground around Fukushima. Obsessive fans are a feature, not a bug. Fanatics spend more money. And if one of them goes nutso and injures an idol, there's always an understudy to replace her.
And this is the one shortcoming I see in Sayonara Miniskirt so far. It's hinting at the misogyny that underlies the idol industry, but so far it has focused its ire entirely upon the fandom. This is certainly a worthy subject, but it's only half the story. If the series doesn't also delve into management and how they perpetuate misogyny, it's missing the big picture.
Still, this is only the first volume. There's plenty of time for Makino to delve into other aspects of the industry.
For my second stab at reading Japanese, I wanted to try something a bit easier. Something where I could focus my brain on understanding the the words and grammar without having to worry about any subtlety or nuance. Which, considering my first go was about the level of The Babysitters Club, was quite a challenge to find.
After digging through Bookwalker, I found the perfect title.
Beginning serialization in 1982, Oh! Toumei Ningen (Whoa! Invisible Man) is contemporary with Dragon Ball and Urusei Yatsura, and as hard as this may be to believe, it has even less subtlety than either of those.
Or rather, he doesn't see anything. There's no face looking back at him from the mirror. He strips naked and confirms that, yes indeed, his whole body is invisible.
While Tooru's panicking about this strange development, his cousin Yoshie comes in for her after dinner bath. Unaware that a naked teenage boy is right next to her, Yoshie sets to disrobing. Of course bathrooms are hard enough for two people to get around in when they both know the other's there. When one of them's invisible... get ready for some hi-larious hijinks. Oh look, she's reaching for the shampoo bottle, but she's grabbing his hoo-ha!
All the chapters are cringe-inducing, but the second stands out as especially bad. In this installment, Tooru discovers his new homeroom teacher is dating the greaseball gym coach. Infuriated at the thought of a woman giving it up to a guy he doesn't approve of, Tooru breaks into her apartment during her next date and makes her think the gym teacher is trying to rape her.
Almost as bad is the final chapter of the volume, in which Yoshie and her friends take part in a gymnastics competition. Tooru of course decides he wants an up-close look at all the girls in tight leotards, not even stopping to think that his presence on the gym floor will mess up their routine. We're supposed to be impressed when he uses his invisibility to fix their mistakes -- for instance, when Yoshie's baton-toss goes awry he catches it and tosses it back to her, impressing the judges in the process.
The problem with that interpretation is that nothing in the manga suggests that Tooru's been corrupted. He feels no compunction about his actions. He never stops to consider the shame and trauma he's inflicting upon his victims. Nor does the story ever step far enough out of his POV to suggest that his attitude towards all this is wrong. When he finds himself in embarrassing situations upon turning visible again, the audience is meant to sympathize with him. If not for the magic fish eggs, no doubt he'd find some other way to peek in on Yoshie.
To some degree, it's refreshing to have a protagonist who's actively protagoning, instead of the bland lumps in modern anime and manga who literally stumble into these situations. For all his faults, Tooru does have a personality, unlike Audience Insert Protagonist #7245. Too bad it's the personality of a sexual predator. Surely there must be a middle ground -- male characters who are interested in having sexy times with girls, but also understand concepts like "consent"and "boundaries."
This is one of the reasons I'm learning Japanese. Unlike anime, where so few shows are produced each year that it's possible to be aware of them all even if you don't watch them, the manga industry is so vast that no one -- not even in Japan -- will ever be able to keep track of even a tenth of it. The vast majority of manga will never be scanlated, let alone officially licensed. The only way to read them is in Japanese. Even if my first selection turned out to be crap, I look forward to digging through Bookwalker and finding some hidden gem that I'd never know about otherwise.
And so, allons-y.