(Episode One: In which our self-proclaimed gadabout commences a series of manga graphic novel test drives.)
I begin my explorations on a Saturday, in downtown Normal during August Corn Fest. It’s a big day for local merchants (college students have just returned to town, and they wanna get ’em accustomed to spending money downtown), my comic shop supplier included, and the streets are filled with items shouting buymebuymebuyme! Acme Comics has chosen to put out boxes of ten-cent comics (lots of kids are rifling through ’em) and a rack of manga GNs along the sidewalk. Clearly, that’s where the walk-in action is.
Following its debut, I did a Gadabout piece on the American version of the Japanese anthology Shonen Jump, so I decide to open with works theoretically aimed at an older audience than SN‘s market of pre- and teenaged boys. Publishers like Tokyopop and Viz put the intended age range for each book right on the covers, but another quick way to spot the “Mature” titles is their shrinkwrapping. I grab one book that I’ve seen recommended in other comics-related blogs (Battle Royale) and one that looks totally different in both audience and tone, Moyoco Anno’s Happy Mania (Tokyopop). Let’s start with the second, shall we?
(The Inevitable Opening Disclaimer: For the purposes of these pieces, it should be acknowledged that this writer is an ignoramus when it comes to Japanese comics and culture. Any egregious mischaracterizations that appear should definitely be viewed in that light, so caveat lector, kids!)
The pink-tinged cover of the book’s back/front cover (“One of Japan’s most provocative mangas!” the text at the bottom tells us) depicts a short-skirted girl/woman, standing assertively in hitchhiking pose, a frown on her lipsticked lips. This, the cover announces, is a take-charge kind of gal. But is she?
The woman in question is Kayoka Shigeta, a twenty-something bookstore clerk who we first meet reading a Love Horoscope. It’s a pose that captures the character succinctly, for Shigeta is obsessed about one thing: her unattached state. “Why does everyone have a boyfriend except me?” she asks herself again and again (and again and again and again). The thought permeates every aspect of her life – each time a studly male comes within eyeshot, she starts fantasizing that this one’s Mister Right – but she ignores the guy she’s working with, the bespectacled Takahashi who, of course, has a thing for her.
A pretty typical romance comic heroine, right? Only Anno kicks things up a notch. For one thing, Shigeta is Little Miss Mood Swing: ebullient over her imaginary relationships one panel; depressed and p.o.ed the instant she realizes the guy’s not all he’s cracked up to be. She thinks nothing of trying to steal a new co-worker’s boyfriend mere moments after she’s first met him, and when she does have a one night stand with a handsome customer, she’s immediately convinced he loves her. When he gives indications to the contrary, she angrily turns on the guy, shouting, “I want a boyfriend! Not a fuck buddy!”
Further on in the book, she stalks a handsome boy she meets at a club, ultimately beds him and then stops going into work, convinced that marriage is imminent. She refuses to admit anything else might be happening until the second of two other girlfriends shows up at the guy’s apartment. Then she throws a fit, breaking one of the duo’s His and Her mugs.
Happy Mania, the romance series for Borderline Personality Disorder teengirls everywhere.
One volume in, and I have a difficult time getting a sense of where my sympathies are supposed to lie – which is okay, but certainly different from American genre comics. It’s clear that other characters find Shigeta irritating: at one point, her older roommate Fuku is shown thinking, “It’s really hard to believe you’re 24 years old,” while the first volume ends with Takahashi plaintively asking the reader, “Can someone please tell me why I like Miss Shigeta!” Tokyopop’s cover blurb compares our lead to Bridget Jones, but unlike that comically neurotic heroine, Anno’s protagonist displays little capacity for even misdirected self-analysis.
Anno’s black-and-white art is clean and simple, but not as sexually charged as the book’s cover image would suggest. Our heroine’s big-eyed look (often with blank pupils that make her appear like she’s from a Harold Gray adaptation of Fatal Attraction) often works against her attractiveness. At least one scene is disturbingly rendered – Shigeta examining her naked self in a mirror and cataloging her perceived deficiencies – which I think is the point. (Second volume in the series features a cover more in tune with Anno’s story: Shigeta with lipstick smeared all over and around her mouth, looking anything but the romance comic heroine.) A few times we’re also treated to Shigeta’s fantasies without any warning. When she returns home from one of her one-night-stands, for example, Anno draws her like a Legionnaire returning from service in the desert. In other panels, we see her in what I think of as a standard manga pose: mouth opened widely like some comics incarnation of Lucy Ricardo.
Is this comedy or serious romance, character flaw or pure pathology? Darned if I know, but it sure makes the sight of a young Aunt May flashing a condom in Trouble look tame. One thing’s certain: if I wanted to open my journey into manga GNs with something different from American comic mores, I couldn’t have picked much better than Happy Mania. An essentially unlikable heroine misusing her sexuality in pursuit of an army of superficially attractive men, who basically lacks the wit to make her emotionally stunted state entertaining over the long haul – I’m not sure I want to meet the audience who identifies with Shigeta’s travails. Like our anti-heroine, I bet they’d be really aggravating.
(Originally posted in Pop Culture Gadabout.)