Shōjo manga roundup: Crayon Days, Pocha Pocha, Kase-san

It’s been a long time since I posted a straightforward review of a comic. The last one was actually from June 2013 (of Before Watchmen). All the while I’ve been reading comics, of course, some of which I found noteworthy. Here are three short reviews of some of them, united only by the fact that they are all shōjo manga from the last few years.
Painting is still very much a physical activity in Crayon Days.

Painting is still very much a physical activity in Crayon Days.

Title: Kreidetage (くれよん でいず ~ 大キライなアイツ / Crayon Days – Daikirai na Aitsu)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kozue Chiba
Year: 2013-2014 (originally 2012)
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shōgakukan)
Pages: 192-196
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.tokyopop.de/manga-shop/index.php?cPath=872_901
Volumes reviewed: 1-3 (of 3 volumes in German so far; vol. 4 is scheduled for April)

Shima is a 16-year old girl who likes to paint, but is otherwise unremarkable. The story starts with her changing from a regular high school to an art school. A fairly standard love story ensues, her (main) love interest being a rough and unfriendly schoolmate who is already an acclaimed painter. While I can’t say I find the depiction of high school life in Crayon Days convincing, it might be an interesting manga from an art historian’s perspective, as we get to see people painting and talking about painting. For instance, in the world of Crayon Days, abstract expressionism still seems to be en vogue. However, as in many other manga, the setting isn’t all that important here – it just serves as a backdrop for the characters and the story.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Katsuyo being caught at what she's best at.

Katsuyo being caught at what she’s best at in Pocha Pocha Swimming Club.

Title: Pocha Pocha Swimming Club (ぽちゃぽちゃ水泳部 / Pocha Pocha Suieibu)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ema Tōyama
Year: 2014 (originally 2011)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Hōbunsha)
Pages: 112
Price: €7 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/pocha-pocha-swimming-club/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (1 volume in German so far; vol. 2 is scheduled for March)

When overweight Katsuyo finds out that the boy she fancies only likes slim girls, she decides to lose weight and joins the swimming club of her school. I must admit I hadn’t read a yonkoma (4-panel) manga before, mainly because I thought that format was employed only for gag strips. As Pocha Pocha shows, longer stories can be told just as well in such a rigid layout of 2 × 4 panels per page. I’m not even sure  whether I find ‘comedy’ the right genre designation (though I suspect some of the humour gets lost in translation). Then again, romance isn’t the decisive element either here, as the story revolves rather around swimming, eating, and losing weight.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Yamada and Kase, our soon-to-be lovers from Asagao to Kase-san.

Yamada and Kase, our soon-to-be lovers from Asagao to Kase-san.

Title: Ipomoea (あさがおと加瀬さん / Asagao to Kase-san)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Hiromi Takashima
Year: 2013 (originally 2012)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Shinshokan)
Pages: 159
Price: €7 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch/ipomoea/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (only 1 volume in German so far)

The shy schoolgirl Yamada meets her athletic schoolmate Kase when watering flowers (ipomoea or morning glories, asagao in Japanese) at their school and gradually falls in love with her. Yuri (Girls’ Love) is another kind of manga that I’ve shied away from in the past, finding it somewhat creepy for adult men to read about lesbian teenage love. Kase-san, however, handles the topic sensitively, as there is no nudity at all in this manga. It is quite similar to a heterosexual romance story, except that the protagonist Yamada struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and that of the eponymous Kase. Their homosexual love is still experienced as a somewhat ‘forbidden love’, which adds an interesting twist to this story. Hopefully Egmont will translate more of this series.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Daisy Yamada’s Boyfriend and the purported superficiality of Japanese pop culture (review of vol. 1-3)

Detail of a page from Boyfriend vol. 2 by Daisy Yamada (via http://mangamoon.com/)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Daisy Yamada
Publisher: EMA (originally Kodansha)
Pages: 160-176
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/index.php/cat/C882_boyfriend.html

(This is the first reviewed item here that actually costs 650 cents, by the way.)

Japanese popular culture is often accused of being superficial, shallow or hollow (probably most entertainingly so in an episode of Andreas Michalke’s comic strip Bigbeatland). While I don’t want to discuss this hypothesis now, Daisy Yamada’s manga Boyfriend is a pop cultural work that could easily be seen as an example of this alleged superficiality. At least that’s what I took it for at first.

The German publisher’s promotional text is titled “Boyfriend – bullying concerns everyone”, and reads: “Hijiki leaves everything behind, the cruelties of her schoolmates, the dreadful helplessness. She starts anew, with new classmates. But can Hijiki make true new friends with her faked cheerful self? Maybe even a boyfriend?”

So I thought this three-volume series was about a girl being bullied at school. But let’s see what actually happens:

Vol. 1: Hijiki starts 8th grade at a new school, but we don’t know why she changed school until towards the end of the volume. She is a somewhat insecure girl, but nevertheless quickly makes new friends and even falls in love with the haughty Horai. In the last chapter, we learn that she has been bullied at her former school, and now the girls in her new class turn against her because she has become too popular with the boys. However, there’s not much bullying going on so far.

Vol. 2: In the beginning of this volume, three girls attack Hijiki verbally, break her mobile phone, and lock her up in some sort of shed or warehouse. That’s bullying alright, but the remaining 160 pages focus on the budding romance between her and Horai.

Vol. 3: This volume is shorter than the others (or rather, there’s a long backup story after the end of Boyfriend on page 116) and is primarily about Hijiki’s and Horai’s families standing in the way of their relationship. Apart from a two-page scene at Hijiki’s old school to which she briefly returns (plus two flashback scenes), there’s no bullying in here.

If we assume that this manga is meant to have bullying as its central topic, then we can call this treatment of bullying superficial indeed, in the same vein in which, e.g., Masami Tsuda’s Kare Kano might be seen as a superficial treatment of teenage pregnancy, or Setona Mizushiro’s X-Day as a superficial treatment of parental abuse. Those and other comics don’t give enough room to such problematic topics to provide the reader with several points of view and background information, thus degrading them to cheap plot devices. However, who says that Boyfriend is supposed to be a profound and comprehensive discussion of bullying? Actually no one does. It’s just what I expected after reading the promo text – paratextual evidence at best.

To expect Boyfriend to teach you something about bullying is like expecting Maid Sama to teach you about maid cafés, or Twinkle Stars about astronomy (cf. my review of Daisuki): these themes are present in the comics, and you get pieces of information about them, but they are only one subject among several. So you can’t say Yamada did anything wrong, unless you take Boyfriend for something it isn’t. It’s just a nice, compact (if somewhat generic) high school romance manga, nothing more and nothing less – and with beautiful artwork at that.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Review: Daisuki 11/2011-01/2012

Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: various
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Hakusensha)
Pages: 256
Price: €5.95 (D)
Website: http://www.daisuki-online.de/

Despite the importance of the anthology magazine format for the Japanese manga industry, it failed to catch on in Germany. Banzai (published by Carlsen) was cancelled in 2005 (although it had carried both Naruto and One Piece), Manga Power (which was able to feature a considerable variety of manga genres, due to its “telephone book” size) and Manga Twister (both published by EMA) ran until 2004 and 2006, respectively. So Daisuki remains as the sole survivor (apart from Paper Theatre) in the German scene, even though it’s a shōjo magazine and thus caters to a niche market. Granted, that’s still quite a large niche, and apparently that market is sizeable enough to keep the title running since it was launched in 2003 as a sister title to Banzai. Due to a licensing deal between Carlsen and the Japanese publisher Hakusensha, almost all series in Daisuki were first published by this venerable company (which apparently belongs to the same publishing group as Shogakukan and Shueisha). Starting from its very first issue, I read Daisuki for a year or two, but for some reason (maybe the cancellation of Kare Kano?) I stopped reading it for years until I recently thought I’d give it another try.

Daisuki 11/2011-01/2012 still look very much like the issues from eight years ago. Each issue contains 1-2 episodes (of about 30 pages) from 6 series. The main difference is that one episode in each issue is printed in monochrome colour, e.g. magenta on white instead of black on white. Whatever. The series currently featured in Daisuki are, roughly from best to worst (in my opinion): Twinkle Stars (Hoshi wa Utau, by Natsuki Takaya, the author of Fruits Basket which also ran in Daisuki), in which the initial premise of a highschool stargazing club is all but neglected in favour of a straightforward tale of friendship and romance. Not the worst thing that can happen. Maid-Sama (Kaichō wa Maid-sama!, by Hiro Fujiwara) exploits the maid café phenomenon quite cleverly by having the tough and feisty protagonist lead a double life as a submissive waitress. But, again, by Act 46 (Daisuki 11/2011) this premise doesn’t play much of a role. Mishonen Produce (by Kaoru Ichinose) is the most accessible series, due to its overall shortness (4 volumes) and the fact that we’re starting at “Produce 4” (i.e. episode 4) here. There’s also a nice, almost metafictional element in the references to the fictitious shōjo manga series the heroine is inspired by. Skip Beat! (by Yoshiki Nakamura) seems to have been running since forever – we’re at Act 128 now. I still remember it from when I first read Daisuki, years ago. I didn’t like this superficial breaking-into-showbusiness tale then, and I don’t like it much now. The tankōbons of Vampire Knight (by Matsuri Hino) have been quite successful in Germany, but I guess reading only episodes 62-64 is not the best way to grasp an epic mystery tale. Alice Academy (Gakuen Alice, by Tachibana Higuchi) is another mystery series that I don’t really get, and the fact that it’s centered around pre-teens doesn’t make it more appealing to me.

So what to make of Daisuki? Do people read it to select the series they’re going to buy, or do they enjoy and collect it for its own sake? Does it have enough influence to twist the German-language market in favour of Hakusensha titles, or do similar publisher deals have this effect anyway? Is Daisuki a representative showcase of the Japanese shōjo scene, or even of all the titles that get translated into German? Is the German manga anthology magazine an endangered species that needs to be protected, or is it just a dinosaur, a relic from a bygone age that doesn’t really fit in today’s market? Anyway, I think I’m going to read the next issue too.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○