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.
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.
A few years back I made a stab at teaching myself Japanese. I was making pretty good progress -- I'd memorized a couple hundred kanji and even managed, with the help of a dictionary, to read a few chapters of a manga -- but then, as it has an annoying habit of doing, life got in the way and I fell off track.
At the start of this year, I finally decided to give it another go, and after practicing for the last few months I've reached the point where I'm ready to take a stab at reading again.
In the years since my last attempt, it's become a lot easier to obtain Japanese texts. Back then, you had to import physical copies through companies like Yes Asia and CD Japan. The price wasn't too bad -- Japanese books are cheap enough that even with the cost of international shipping, the price is still comparable to buying an English edition at MSRP -- but trans-Pacific shipping takes forever, and if you mess up by, oh, let's say accidentally order a Chinese edition instead of Japanese, you're kinda screwed. You could theoretically buy ebooks through Amazon.jp back then, but region restrictions meant jumping through hoops, and doing so was a violation of Amazon's terms of service, which meant they could nuke your whole account if they found out.
But in the last few years, a Japanese ebook store called Bookwalker has emerged, and 99% of their items are available globally. They even have an English version of their site for selling translated manga, so you can create an account there and then browse the Japanese site.
Which means that my reading level is at the Japanese equivalent of Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club.
Nonetheless, the only way you can learn to read a language is by reading the language. If all you ever do is memorize vocabulary and and read grammar guides, you're just filling your head with useless trivia. You have to apply that knowledge before it'll take hold in your brain.
There are several imprints that specialize in books at my reading level. Of the ones I've looked at, Kodansha's Aoi Tori Bunko seems to put out the sort of books a teacher would want students to read, while Shueisha's Mirai Bunko and Kadokawa's Tsubasa Bunko aim for what kids would want to read. Tsubasa, for example, has novelizations of Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda's anime films, and Mirai has books based upon the manga series Kimi ni Todoke. Even the exception bears this out -- the one anime novelization Aoi Tori's put out is based upon Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice), which is notably a story about bullying and disability.
As they're introducing each other and speculating on what the girls have planned, a fourth boy appears -- and he's none other than their school's star athlete, the Soccer Prince!
Seriously. That's what they call him.
Every single line.
Don't get me wrong, as a way of honing my Japanese, that sort of thing is really good. I'm never going to forget that "王子" (ouji) means "prince," that's for sure. But as narration, it's kinda weird.
Anyways, the Soccer Prince is a total alpha-male. The other boys freak out at the indisputable fact that they're pitiful losers next to his hyper-masculinity. One boy's like, "Oh my God, if we let him in there, he's totally going to snag our girls for his harem and make 'em give him a reverse gangbang, like in that one video my brother has that he let me watch one time." (I'm paraphrasing here, but that's the gist.)
In the midst of all this, a fight breaks out between the Soccer Prince and another boy, and they accidentally knock Saku under a suit of armor. Poor Saku's so terrified he starts screaming like a baby, and suddenly the lights come on and the girls reveal that the whole thing was a set-up to get the guys in the mood for Halloween.
Oh, and there's a fourth girl present that the 1%ers are trying to hook up with the Soccer Prince, which is the reason they invited him, not because they wanted to cuck their boyfriends.
But no worries! When Saku expresses his self-doubts to her, Natsume laughs it off. Turns out she has a thing for twinky guys who are kinda wimps, so it's all good. And maybe later, if Saku wants to make out with the Soccer Prince, well...
(Again, I'm paraphrasing, but I don't think I'm reading any subtext that's not intended by the author, and a cursory search of Pixiv backs up on this.)
So that's the story of 1%: Halloween Panic. I can't say it's the best book I've ever read. Or even a good book. But for practicing my JP skills, it did its job.
Still, for my next adventure in Nihongo, I'm gonna go with a manga.