Love is still in the air post Valentine's Day on Manga Island, and the usual violence and action gives way to charm, romance and even some wackiness as we visit the section of the Island inhabited by cuteness, star-crossed lovers and romance. While it's not an area of Manga Island I visit often, I thought it high time to report on some of the great manga and interesting ideas in romance tales from Japan, including some that originally had writers from the West.
I've really enjoyed the over-the-top love triangle tale of "School Rumble." Jin Kobayashi spins a tale that starts as a typical high school love story and quickly veers into a weird, wacky story full of unexpected twists and turns, puns, visual gags, and what appears to be every crazy cartoony cliché that comedy and shojo manga have to offer. While other manga such as "Cromartie High School" deal handily with high school tough guys in an episodic way, "School Rumble" handles the shojo end of comedy, complete with everything you could want I a highs school setting.
When ditzy Tsukamoto Tenma ("School Rumble" preserves the Japanese tradition of family name first, Tenma's family is the Tsukamoto family) returns to high school for what is equivalent of her junior year, she has but one goal, get the cute, popular, naive Karasuma to notice her, and hopefully go out with her. Her need to do her best at school is quickly supplanted by concern that she won't be in the same classroom as Karasuma, only to find out that he may be transferring far away soon. And so, Tenma must implement a plan to get to Karasuma one way or another. As if that wasn't enough, one of the baddest hoodlums in high school decides to come back to classes just to try to woo Tenma. A comedy of errors unravels as Tenma tries to pursue Karasuma while being pursued in turn, by Harima Kenji whose hopes to be in Tenma's class as mirror her infatuation with Karasuma. Of course, being the resident tough-guy-among-tough-guys means that he can't let others know about his infatuation, and the comedy is propelled even further.
Harima Kenji is one of the most unique aspects of "School Rumble," as he is often rendered in more a more "tough guy" style, a stark contrast from the doe-eyed shojo look that most of the characters have. It's a great gag that sets him apart from the other characters and is an interesting parody of tough guy manga that makes the shojo comedy even more amusing. It also shows off Jin Kobayashi's draftsmanship, as he deftly switches between the highly rendered style employed by the tough guy scenes, to traditional shojo style, on to cartoony sight gags and everywhere in between. This is Kobayashi's first manga series, but he proves that he is adept at shojo and action comics all in the first volume. The references and gags are hilarious and the variety of styles that Kobayashi is able to pull of is very impressive indeed!
The love triangle is not the only focus of the each somewhat episodic chapter, as we are introduced to Tenma's sister and her friends, each introduced by each other in data sheets between chapters. These introductions are entertaining gags, as we get to see what each of the characters knows about (and thinks of) the other characters. In fact, this may be the only fault I could find with the book, as the number of characters can be hard to keep track of. Each of them has a distinct personality, and somewhat individual style but it did take some flipping back and forth between some pages to double check which characters was which.
Once again, Del Rey provides extremely thorough translation notes for all of the various puns and gags spread throughout the book. Included in the excellent translation job are all of the notes in the side panels as well as the sound effects left intact with small translations around them. I also enjoyed Kobayashi's love of international pop culture shows through in the chapter titles, with such names as "Plan1 from Outerspacem" "Enter the Dragon," and "Speed." Part of the charm is finding out how each of the titles ties in to what is happening of the chapter, they tend to be clever gags and add an extra bit of humor to an already laugh out loud book. "School Rumble" is an unexpected twist to the genre, and one I can't wait to see more of. If you're a fan of shojo and want a break from the norm, or if you want to get a different take on books like "Cromartie High School" or if you like the non-sequitor dream sequences of shows like "Scrubs," or the more comedic sections of "Kare Kano," you owe it to yourself to read "School Rumble."
A more serious and interesting take on romance can be seen in Dark Horse's release of Harlequin manga, "Response," written by Penny Jordan with art by Takako Hashimoto, and "A Girl in a Million," penned by Betty Neels with art by Kako Itoh. These books were originally adapted from Harlequin novels into Japanese and now get a translation back into English with a colorful twist. Pink covers and ink for younger readers and violet covers and ink for more mature readers. This is an interesting marketing technique, but one I find rather jarring. The violet ink reads ok, but I found a whole book of pink ink to be extremely hard to read. Girls and guys I asked seemed to feel the same way, and it is a shame since the idea of color coding the manga by content is actually a clever idea for these books. In general, I think the sepia toned ink used by Viz for their "Nausicaa" re-release would have been a more pleasing presentation with maybe a slight violet or magenta color shift depending on which line the book is in. Of course, black and white would have been fine to me, but I think it is an interesting for a manga line that hasn't had a precedent here in the US.
To be honest, these books aren't the kind of thing I would normally pick up from my local book store, but as a manga fan I was very intrigued by how these books turned out and they might be like. I've read my share of shojo romances and I enjoy manga like "Kare Kano" to no end. The fact that Dark Horse took an interest in releasing romance novels to gain an even wider manga audience intrigued me. I'm a big proponent of expanding the manga market, and this to me is an interesting step.
After reading both novels, I realize that I'm probably not the target audience for these books, I used to scoff at my sisters collection of romance novels and that she checked out from the library, traded with friends, or got for cheap at used books stores. I then realized that they books accomplish exactly what was intended; quick, easy to read romances that have all of the hallmarks of soap operas, and in the case of the Pink series, young love.
"Response" (the more mature book) deals with the intrigues of a woman whose ideal romance turns into something more than she expected, twisting into betrayal and a marriage marred by a secrets in both her family and her lover's. As the more mature title there are many more plot twists and lots of flower panels of lovemaking. The panels are tasteful cutaways, in a visual representation of the Harlequin style of storytelling. "Response" is a much more soap opera (containing what would be several seasons of soapy plot in its 160 pages), while "A Girl in a Million" is much more about young idealized love. "A Girl in a Million" is definitely meant for a younger generation as it tells the story of a young girl nurse and her courtship by a top notch hunky doctor. There's medical drama and a few twists here and there along with a more doe-eyed shojo look and more simplistic renderings in the faces, while retaining the detail in the backgrounds and clothing. The art in both books is decent but like the material doesn't stand out or break new ground. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as both books accomplish exactly what the writer and artist were going for; they definitely capture the spirit of the Harlequin line (I have my morbid curiosity of reading passages from my sister's stack of books to thank for that knowledge).
All told, I'm not sure how readers will take to the books after watching teen dramas on network TV or how older readers will take to them when they could get "Sex and the City," but I have to applaud Dark Horse for taking the chance (with the exception of the weird ink scheme) to bring books like this out to the market. It certainly shows that there is more to manga than school girls and gets closer to the idea that in Japan there is a market for manga for all ages. It may not be deep or meaningful, but it's certainly nice to see a publisher putting out books like this to test the waters. The original books are certainly popular, and why not read a romance manga instead of the prose version? In fact, I am interested to see if this kind of thing could be expanded on in OEL books with stronger women and even more expansive stories. However, after going to many a used books store and seeing the stacks of romance novels, maybe these books are perfect for filling that harlequin jones in a manga romance version of "you've got your peanut butter in my chocolate/ you've got your cheesy romance in my comics."
So, if you're single and looking for some escapist romance and charm, or you're in a relationship and want to hold on to that Valentine's "love is in the air" feeling, feel free to visit this section of Manga Island. I think I'll sniff the roses a bit more before heading back to the land of robots, martial arts, and supernatural mayhem.
Publisher: Del Rey
Rating: 16+ (for some violence and a little bit of racy talk between high school students)
Publisher: Dark Horse
Rating: 16+ (for sexual situations and a small amount of violence)
A Girl in a Million
Publisher: Dark Horse
Rating: Teen (not rated on the cover but has typical teen romance material)
Links of interest:
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop, PSY-COMM Volume 1 is out RIGHT NOW!! He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.