The best manga of 2016? Review of Yotsuba&! and Kimi ni todoke

2016? Yes, that’s right, we’re still not finished with that year. This time we’re going to look at some ‘problematic’ middle volumes of long-running manga series: how come first volumes and, on rare occasions, final volumes get all the media attention while all the volumes in between get none? If I remember correctly, Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! vol. 13 was included on only one best-of-2016 list and consequently didn’t make the master list, while Karuho Shiina’s Kimi ni todoke volumes 23 and 24 were not nominated at all but ranked among the best-selling shōjo manga of 2015 in Japan. Wouldn’t it be possible for a manga series to start out strong and then get even better in the course of the series, as its creator ‘finds his/her groove’?

Of course, this kind of progress is a rare thing. Most manga series are on a more or less steady downward slope, their creators eventually running out of ideas but still milking the proverbial cow until the readers’ loyalty is exhausted and the series cancelled. Another reason for ignoring middle volumes is that reviews of them work differently regarding their purpose as reading recommendations; typically, potential readers want to know whether the first volume is worth reading, and when they read it they make up their own minds about proceeding to the next volume. Still, some middle volumes stand out from the rest, some are good jumping-on points, and some are nothing special but keep up the high quality of a series and are simply better than most other manga volumes of the year, and consequently deserve a spot on a best-of list. So let’s talk more about middle volumes.

Yotsuba&! (よつばと!) vol. 13
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kiyohiko Azuma
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kadokawa)
Year: 2016 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 13 so far
Pages: ~220
Price: € 6.50
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/yotsuba/1836/yotsuba-band-13 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-2916-3

Previously in Yotsuba&!: Yotsuba is a five year old girl living with her single father.

Some people say each Yotsuba&! chapter is self-contained and they can be read in any order, but then you would lose track of the ever-growing cast (the neighbours’ daughters, their respective friends, and so on) and not get the references to earlier episodes, such as the camping trip in the previous volume.

This 13th volume is remarkable due to several unusual things:

  • There’s one episode that isn’t primarily humoristic in tone, as Yotsuba wakes up at night, doesn’t find her father sleeping next to her and wanders around scared in the dark and slightly creepy house.
  • Yotsuba’s grandmother is introduced, the only character (besides Yotsuba’s father’s friend Yanda) who isn’t overly friendly to her. It’s Yotsuba’s father’s mother, of course, as Yotsuba’s biological ancestry remains a mystery.
  • In the last episode, Yotsuba and her father have a make-believe swordfight, but the imaginary weapons are visualised for the readers to see.
  • A seemingly insignificant scene is referenced much later: in the beginning of the volume, a little bird hops towards Yotsuba on the street as if to greet her, and several chapters later, Yotsuba sees it again when she is with her grandmother who teaches her bird names.
  • The vignettes at the end of each chapter sometimes add twists to the respective episode, as in the first one of this volume: in the beginning of the chapter, Yotsuba gives a stick from her camping trip to the neighbors’ girl Asagi who doesn’t know what to do with it, but in the closing vignette, she has hung it on the wall as a decorative sort of key holder.

Overall, this is an above-average volume in an above-average series. On this level, the release of every new volume should be given attention.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Kimi ni todoke (君に届け) vol. 24
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Karuho Shiina
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 27 so far in Germany, 29 in Japan (ends with vol. 30 in March)
Pages: ~175
Price: € 6.95
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/nah-bei-dir-kimi-ni-todoke/1523/nah-bei-dir-kimi-ni-todoke-band-24 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-2325-3

Previously in Kimi ni todoke: Sawako and her best friends Yano and Yoshida have at last found boyfriends, but as they enter their final year of high school, the threat of separation due to different university and career choices looms over all of them.

The last two volumes focused on Yano and Yoshida, but in vol. 24 we’re more or less back on track as the actual protagonist Sawako is once more at the center of the story. Sawako realises she wants to go away for university, but she is afraid of admitting that to her boyfriend. And that is, basically, what happens in this volume.

When re-reading the entire series up to this volume, I was surprised how fast-paced the first 2-3 volumes seem, and how glacial the pace has become now. As noted before, Karuho Shiina largely avoids the danger of repetition inherent in a ‘talking heads’ type of story by employing ever-changing page layouts. On the other hand, sometimes the character proportions are still slightly off, and I can’t help but feel that a little sloppiness has crept into the art. As strong as the manga series is overall, at this point it has been manoeuvred into somewhat of a trough, and it remains to be seen if it rebounds for the final six volumes.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

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Roland Barthes’s packages – in comics?

Speaking of grids: in his book about Japan¹, Empire of Signs (L’Empire des signes, 1970), Roland Barthes doesn’t mention manga and their panel grids directly. However, he comes close to it in a chapter titled “Packages”: “every [Japanese] object […] seems framed. […] around it, there is: nothing, an empty space […].” (p. 43 in the Hill and Wang translated edition; italics by Barthes). This sounds like comic panels and gutters alright. On the other hand, “this frame is invisible; the Japanese thing is not outlined” (ibid.).

Now, while outlines are certainly a typical feature of comic panels, they are by no means a necessary characteristic. Borderless layouts are rare, but they do exist. The bottom row of the Kimi ni todoke page I’ve shown in my Rosalind Krauss blogpost is one example. In the same volume, there are entire pages without panel borders, such as this one:

page from Kimi ni todoke, vol. 7, by Karuho ShiinaThe page background is black, which means that the tiny black strip between the bottom two panels is part of the gutter, not a panel outline.

Still, Barthes is more concerned with traditional Japanese room furnishings, ikebana, and wrapped souvenirs than with comics. The interesting question here is: if the Japanese culture has developed a general fondness for framing, packaging, delimiting things, does this explain why comics with their framed panels have become so popular there? From the way in which Barthes characterises his framed objects, the answer seems to be ‘no’. “The [Japanese] thing is […] distinct […] by an excision which removes the flourishing of meaning from the object” (ibid.). Comics work the other way round: by placing a panel into a sequence of other panels, meaning is bestowed on the panel. Thus the gutter between the panels doesn’t excise them – on the contrary, it glues them together.

It’s curious and regrettable that Barthes doesn’t mention manga (or anime, or most other contemporary Japanese pop cultural media for that matter) at all in Empire of Signs. Perhaps, if he had written it 20 years later (if he would have still been alive by then), at the height of the manga boom in Japan, he wouldn’t have been able to ignore them.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog


¹ Barthes makes it clear, though, that his book is not about the ‘real’ Japan, but rather about a “deliberately formed system” out of “a certain number of isolated features”, a “fictive nation” which he chose to call “Japan” (p. 3 in the Hill and Wang translated edition).

Rosalind Krauss’s grids – in comics?

[This post was originally planned to be published in March in conjunction with Women’s History Month, but then I became ill and couldn’t finish it in time.]

Whenever comics scholars hear the word “grid”, they immediately think of comics. This is due to panels on a comic page often forming a grid-like layout. One of the field’s journals is even named The Comics Grid, which only shows how strong this perceived connection is. People outside of the comics world, however, might have a somewhat different idea of what a grid is. Take Rosalind E. Krauss, for instance. In 1979 she published an essay titled “Grids” (collected in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernists Myths, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986, pp. 11-22) and returned to the topic two years later in “The Originality of the Avant-Garde” (in the same book on pp. 151-170; the section on grids is on pp. 157-162). Here’s a quote from the latter (p. 158):

The absolute stasis of the grid, its lack of hierarchy, of center, of inflection, emphasizes not only its anti-referential character, but – more importantly – its hostility to narrative. This structure, impervious both to time and to incident, will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and the result is silence.

That doesn’t sound like comics at all, does it? Part of the problem might be, Krauss never defines what she means by “grid”. This would have been a good idea though, because even in mathematics there doesn’t seem to be a commonly agreed definition.¹ From the examples pictured in her essay, it looks like she means two different types of grid images: one in which a grid is formed by sets of drawn (or painted, etc.) parallel lines (e.g. Agnes Martin’s paintings), and another in which these lines are only implicitly formed by the borders of rectangles (e.g. Jasper Johns’s Gray Numbers, to which we’ll get back later in this post).

Both types can be found in comics, too. The former is the more common layout. However, the following example might look unusual at first:

a page from Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, vol. 2

a page from Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, vol. 2

This is a 1×3 panel layout alright, the dominant layout in The New Frontier. It only becomes a grid, though, if you allow the white page borders to form grid lines too, along with the two proper gutters between the panels (even though their widths are different):

a page from Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, with added grid overlayMore on this layout in a minute.

For the second type of grid, the one with the implicit lines, consider this example:

a page from Karuho Shiina's Kimi ni Todoke, vol. 7

a page from Karuho Shiina’s Kimi ni Todoke, vol. 7

There are 5 panels, but no gutters: the 3 panels of the upper row are divided by black borders (whereas the 2 in the lower row don’t have any border between them), but as we can see from the white strip on the right hand side of the page, the page background is white, not black, so there’s no page background visible between the panels and thus there are no proper gutters. What makes it furthermore difficult to discern the grid are the bleeds to the top, left, and bottom of the page. Still, this page can essentially be regarded as a 2×3 panel layout (with the 4th panel² overlapping into the 5th, and the 5th panel spanning two columns):

a page from Karuho Shiina's Kimi ni Todoke, with added grid overlayOnce you start paying attention to these things, the variety of Karuho Shiina’s layouts is amazing. It would be fun to see how many pages into Kimi ni Todoke a page layout is repeated for the first time, but I’ll leave this exercise for another time.

Krauss doesn’t expressly distinguish implicit and explicit grids, but she makes another interesting distinction: centrifugal vs. centripetal.³ A centrifugal reading of a work of art assumes that “the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity” (p. 18). The image is “a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric”, thus “compelling our acknowledgement of a world beyond the frame”. A centripetal work of art, on the other hand, is “an autonomous, organic whole” (p. 19).

From the examples discussed by Krauss, it looks like this distinction is simply a question of cropping: if the grid lines end where the image ends, it’s a centrifugal image. If the grid lines end within the image borders (so that they’re strictly speaking only line segments, not lines proper), it’s a centripetal image. If we want to apply this categorisation to comics, we have to once more be careful not to confuse panel borders with gutters. On Cooke’s New Frontier page, all panel borders are visible, but the imaginary rectangles that continue the grid in all four directions beyond the three panel rectangles are not. Therefore, we cannot say that the gutters (which form our grid here) end at certain points, e.g. the page borders. Thus this page is a centrifugal image. With Shiina’s Kimi ni Todoke page it’s not so easy to tell: here, the white page background on the right acts as a delimiter of the (implicit) grid rays, which exit the page only to the top, left, and bottom. To visualise this view on the page, I coloured each of the 5 panels and the page border differently:

layout diagram of a Kimi ni Todoke pagePerhaps the overall character of this page is still centrifugal, but not quite as much so as in the New Frontier example.

One final remark about the purported “hostility to narrative” of the grid: I think Krauss proves herself wrong by picturing Jasper Johns’s Gray Numbers. In this painting, each rectangle of the grid (except for the top left one) is filled with a numeral between 0 and 9. Let’s look at a random rectangle, say, the middle one in the bottom row. It’s a 4. The rectangle above it is a 3. The one on the left is also a 3. On the right there’s a 5, and next to the 5 there’s a 6… You get the idea. Obviously, there is a pattern here. From the top left to the bottom right corner, the numerals form a sequence – either horizontally or vertically – in which the number is increased by 1 until it is reset to 0 when it would otherwise reach 10. My point is: it matters little what’s inside the rectangles, because we have a tendency to see grids as sequences. And (while the precise meaning may be a matter of debate) a meaningful sequence at that – which amounts to, for all intents and purposes, a narrative. Only completely empty or uniform grids (e.g., again, Agnes Martin’s) resist this reading as a narrative.

All that being said, it should be noted that none of it is really the point of Krauss’s essays, which are more concerned with the grid as a typical form of modernist painting within the discourse of originality and repetition.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog

¹ See e.g. the keyword “grid” at Wolfram MathWorld and the article “Regular grid” at Wikipedia.
² The reading order is right to left here, so the 4th panel is the bottom right one and the 5th panel the bottom left one.
³ More precisely, Krauss acknowledges that this discourse predates her essay. She cites John Elderfield, “Grids”, Artforum X (May 1972), 52-59.

Shōjo manga roundup: Tempest, Namida Usagi, Kimi ni todoke

Continuing from last week, here are some more short reviews of current (or at least recently translated) shōjo manga.
Hime from Tempest despairs of his male body.

Hime despairs of his male body in Tempest.

Title: Sonnensturm (テンペスト / Tempest)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yuiji Aniya
Year: 2013 (originally 2011)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Kōdansha)
Pages: 158
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/sonnensturm/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (of 3 volumes in German so far; volume 4 is scheduled for May)
ISBN: 978-3770481514

In the near future, earth’s entire male population is wiped out by a solar storm – that’s probably the eponymous Tempest (not to be confused with the manga Blast of Tempest / Zetsuen no Tempest). However, the remaining women figure out how to reproduce by hybridising egg cells. Only female children are born this way, until the 40th century, when a boy is born – our protagonist Hime. Trying to fit into this all-female world, he pretends to be a girl. Which goes well until his friend Kou wants to have children with him…
Such a story must be a real treat for anyone interested in gender issues. Homosexuality, social pressure and acceptance, radical feminism, family and reproduction politics, it’s all in there. It’s also interesting from a reception perspective: how easily does the reader “forget” that Hime is a boy? Can it be read as a yuri manga? On the other hand, Tempest doesn’t work well as a science fiction manga. Apart from some advanced data visualisation technology, we don’t see much that tells us we’re in the future at all.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
There's also a subplot on photography in Namida Usagi, but that's quickly forgotten by the 2nd volume.

There’s also a subplot around photography in Namida Usagi, but that’s quickly forgotten by the 2nd volume.

Title: Namida Usagi – Tränenhase (なみだうさぎ ~ 制服の片思い / Namida Usagi – Seifuku no kataomoi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ai Minase
Year: 2013-2014 (originally 2009)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Shōgakukan)
Pages: 192
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/namida-usagi-traenenhase/
Volumes reviewed: 1-2 (of 2 volumes in German so far; vol. 3 is scheduled for March)
ISBN (vol. 1): 978-3770481347

Ai Minase’s name might ring a bell, as she was an assistant to Arina Tanemura on the classic magical girl manga Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne. Namida Usagi was off to a good start: in this high school love story, the stereotypical roles of powerless girl and powerful boy are reversed when Momoka, a fairly average girl, falls in love with her reclusive and unpopular classmate Narumi. However, this setup is already revised at the end of the first volume. After the holidays, Narumi returns to school with shorter hair and without glasses, and suddenly he’s popular with all the girls. This makeover (which the author claims to have made by popular demand) ruins the whole manga for me, as it looks like it continues from this point as just another bog-standard romance manga.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Scary Sawako from Kimi ni todoke.

Scary Sawako from Kimi ni todoke.

Title: Nah bei dir – Kimi ni todoke (君に届け / Kimi ni todoke)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Karuho Shiina
Year: 2010 (originally 2005)
Publisher: Tokypop (originally Shūeisha)
Pages: 192-208
Price: €6.95 (D)
Website (German): http://www.tokyopop.de/manga-shop/index.php?cPath=875_742
Volumes reviewed: 1-2 (of 18 volumes in German so far; vol. 19 is scheduled for April)
ISBN (vol. 1): 978-3-8420-0071-1

Her classmates avoid 15-year old Sawako because she looks like Sadako from The Ring. The only one who doesn’t find her scary is Kazehaya, the most popular boy in class – but then again, Kazehaya is nice to everyone…
I learned about Namida Usagi through a review in AnimaniA, which said that is was nowhere near as good as Kimi ni todoke. In the end I checked out both series, and AnimaniA was right. Although the character constellation in Kimi ni todoke (shy girl meets popular boy) seems generic at first, the subtle storytelling makes more than up for that. Particularly by the second volume, the focus is more on the girls Sawako tries to become friends with than Kazehaya. In other words, this manga is more about friendship than romance, at least so far. Will this series continue to be as enjoyable over the course of more than 20 volumes? I’m willing to give it a try.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○