One of the enjoyable aspects of being a manga wayfarer on the web is the way that folks you don't know from Adam will write to suggest new directions for you to take. A few days after I'd posted my review of Paradise Kiss on Blogcritics, the piece received a comment from a reader who'd been following that series: Kiss was a decent example of girls' manga, she allowed, but for a even better representative of the form, I needed to check out Miho Obana's Kodocha. I'd read references to this popular series before - stopping by Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer's respective blogs, the name'd popped up more than once (Dyer has been writing the English adaptation for Tokyopop) - but this unexpected recommendation pushed it to the front of my list.
It is not, admittedly, a title I would have picked up by my own. With bright girly colors on the spine, the image of a big-eyed heroine dominating its cover, it looked like the kind of title I'd thus far managed to avoid: like one of those Clamp production line works or Sailor Moon. (It's worth noting that Tokyopop includes ads for four different Clamp series and Moon in the back of Volume Two.) As a middle-aged guy who's spent more energy repressing his memories from middle school then enjoying 'em, I'm about as far from Kodocha's demographic as you can get - but, whatdahey, in the spirit of discovery, I pick up the first two books in the ten-volume series, anyway.
Kodocha (subtitled: Sana's Stage) tells the story of Sana Kurata, a television child star in the sixth grade at Jinbo Private School. An energetically perky buttinski who believes that problems can be solved as easily and concisely as the ones her character faces on a weekly teevee series, Sana regularly intrudes on the lives on her classmates and extended family. When we first meet our little mini-Mary Worth, her meddling ways don't seem that unreasonable. Her class is controlled by a gang of boys under the leadership of "demon child" Akito Hayama: turns out that Hayama is blackmailing the classroom teacher, Miss Mitsuya, with photos that he took of her kissing another teacher. (Between this series and GTO, it seems like blackmail's a way of life for the ambitious young student.) "We're getting so far behind," one of the other girl students moans, and our heroine resolves to take on Hayama.
Most of the first volume is devoted to this contest, and it's hopefully not giving too much away to note that our heroine does best Hayama after several comic failed attempts (the best involves a bungee cord in the school gym). Enlisting the aid of Hayama's friend Tsuyashi, a bespectacled classmate who looks meek but bursts into tantrums if provoked, Sana finds a way to blackmail the former "demon child" into behaving. Once she sees him as more than a disruptive "jerk," the child actress begins to empathize with him. Both she and we learn about Hayama's scapegoat role in his family (his mother died during the boy's birth), so, naturally, Sana resolves to do something about this. Conveniently, she's acting in an upcoming TV movie about a family that parallels Hayama's (the speed with which this movie is filmed and broadcast is more than a little unbelievable, but let's ignore that). She bulls her way into the boy's home to convince his father and sister to watch the movie.
As a heroine, Sana is stubborn and impulsive, prone to malapropisms and misstatements (she regularly refers to her manager, Rei, as her "gigolo," though it's clear that she doesn't know what this means - and no one tells her until the second volume). She has an actress' flair for melodramatics and is more than a little bit spoiled besides. In a way, our little acting diva is like a younger version of the heroine from Happy Mania, only with much more self-confidence and an actual shot at some day maturing. Her kimono-wearing mother, a famous novelist, is determinedly eccentric, housing a chipmunk in her coiffure, blithely observing her daughter and only occasionally correcting her.
As in so many comic manga, the characters can turn cartoonish at a moment's notice: when Sana gets peeved, her teeth grow points; when she guzzles an energy drink on the way to the studio, steam and whistles spout from her head like she's a female Roger Rabbit. Whenever Hayama becomes closed off or non-responsive, he's rendered as a cheetah. By now, I've grown accustomed to this visual convention, which is really just a variation on those scenes in Warner Bros. cartoons when Elmer Fudd turns into a jackass after he's been led off a cliff. At times, Obana's art looks deliberately naive, in keeping with her heroine and the occasional child-like plot turns. Tokyopop rates this title as an age 13+ series, but aside from its joking references to "gigolos," the first two books seem to skew two or three years younger to me. Reading an interview with English adapter Sarah Dyer in Sequential Tart, though, I'm told that the material grows deeper as the series continues.
In addition to the main story and a series of short joke strips, volumes one and two also contain a charming side feature: a left column text piece (first heading: "Obana's Incoherent Babbling") that appears every ten pages or so. In it, the writer/artist cheerfully discusses the influences on her story, her childhood, the anime adaptation of her comic and anything that seemingly strikes her fancy. As translated by Dyer, Obana comes across as giddy and not much older than her audience. I'm betting that there are some readers who flip through the book to read the text pages first - just as early Marvel Comics readers often hit the letters' page to see what their favorite creators had to say.
Tokyopop quotes two critics praising Dyer's work on adapting Obana's text, incidentally: an intriguing aspect to consider, especially given the apparent controversy over Keith Giffen's similar work for the English adaptation of Tokyopop's Battle Royale. Are there purist Kodocha fans as equally put-out by Dyer's puns ("sins" for "sense," for instance) as there seem to be for Royale? I haven't come across any, so perhaps shoujo readers aren't as obsessive-compulsive as shonen manga fans.
On one level, Kodocha isn't all that far removed from American comics like the old Harvey titles (think Richie Rich, with its ultra-wealthy boy hero) or Archie - though neither of those lines would've approved a story that turned on the death of a parent. Maybe this willingness to not coddle its young readers, to deal with plot elements most kids already recognize from books or movies, is part of the key to the shoujo manga's success.