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Another few weeks have gone by and it’s time I put out another post. (I apologize that my posts/comments have been few and far between lately; it’s been a hectic semester.) Since readers seem to have enjoyed my post on shonen manga series created by female manga artists, and there are still a lot of examples I haven’t covered, I’m continuing the list this week with another round of great series.

Image from Amazon.com

Image from Amazon.com

InuYasha (犬夜叉) by Rumiko Takahashi

If we’re having a conversation about female manga artists succeeding in shonen manga, we absolutely cannot forget Rumiko Takahashi. Beloved for her iconic characters and unforgettable humor, Takahashi is one of the best known manga artists of any genre. Her work spans over decades and include a slew of popular series, from the hijinks of the boy cursed to turn into a girl when he comes into contact with cold water (Ranma 1/2), to tales of ghosts and reincarnation in her most recent work, Rin-ne. Many of her works have been translated and published in English at some point, a significant feat since we often only see a couple of works by the same manga artist make their way over to the States. With so many great shonen series in her arsenal, it was hard to choose which one to discuss here, but I’ve decided to discuss her award-winning shonen series InuYasha because of the huge popularity it had in the U.S. during its run.

InuYasha takes Takahashi’s talent for romantic comedy and puts it in a crazy adventure where past and present meet, injected with a fine dose of Japanese mythology. We start in modern-day Japan where 15-year-old Kagome lives with her family at the shrine her grandfather runs. One day, however, a horrific creature springs forth through the sealed well on their property and drags the girl back down the well with it. Yet Kagome doesn’t hit the bottom of the well. Instead, she falls right back to feudal Japan, where she awakens a strange boy–half dog demon, half man to be exact–who was put into a deep sleep for decades after a fight with a powerful priestess. Now that he’s awake, he’s convinced that Kagome is the priestess and wants revenge! But when a magical jewel with great power gets shattered and scattered across the land due to Kagome and InuYasha’s actions, the two are charged with collecting the pieces before those pieces make their way into the hands of evil.

Opening up a volume of InuYasha is like being enveloped in a pleasant batch of memories for me. Takahashi’s distinct style has a special charm and her comedic faces are top-notch. She spends time on the protagonists’ adventures, diverging from the main plot to explore the many side-adventures that occur on their journey in an episodic form. She is a master at creating a cast of characters that you just can’t help but root for, from the dutiful Sango and the womanizing monk, Miroku, to InuYasha’s powerful (and slightly terrifying) half-brother, Sesshomaru, who goes on his own emotional journey over the course of the story. If you’re looking for a classic adventure series with loveable characters and a good mix of comedy, romance, and action, check out InuYasha. While you’re at it, check out some of Rumiko Takahashi’s other works as well! You really can’t go wrong with any of them.

D. Gray-Man (ディー・グレイマン) by Katsura Hishino

Turning from a twist on historic Japan to one on industrial England, we have Katsura Hishino’s D. Gray-Man. Katsura Hishino is perhaps best known by her 51x-2-qIyjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_instantly recognizable artwork that finds a balance between cool and beautiful, art that has been highly praised. She puts it to excellent use in D. Gray-Man, masterfully expressing the mix of the grotesque and horrid alongside great fragility that exists both in the world and the characters she has created.   

Set in an alternative version of the nineteenth century, the world is under attack by killing monsters called “Akuma,” an attack put into action by the mysterious “Millennium Earl.” Allen Walker, a polite teen with a dark past and present, however, is not about to let the Earl have his way. When his beloved foster-father Mana died, the boy foolishly made a deal with the Earl to bring Mana back to life. Instead, Mana’s tortured soul was resurrected under the Earl’s control, forced to kill and possess the resurrector to become an Akuma. Luckily, Allen was born with an arm infused with “Innocence,” the only means of fighting Akuma, but the incident leaves the boy emotionally scarred and cursed. Ever since, he’s been able to perceive the otherwise invisible souls that have become Akuma. After training for years with a master, Allen embarks to join The Black Order, a worldwide organization of Innocence-wielding exorcists and humankind’s only hope.

While exorcists, demons, and “humankind’s last hope” are nothing new in the world of action/adventure, Hishino adds spice with a unique, and sometimes downright bizarre, cast of characters, from Allen’s morally questionable master who racks up debt wherever he goes to the Earl who, despite his ominous role, often appears smiling and twirling an umbrella. The story can go off on seemingly random tracks at times (although these usually lead to the discovery of new comrades), but when the plot moves forward, D. Gray-Man becomes addicting. And if the good vs. evil plot leaves you wanting more complexity, rest assured that Hishino knows how to mix things up. Characters who enter the story aren’t always what they seem, not even Allen himself, although you have to be patient and wait for those plot twists to come. As a bonus to those who stick to the series, Hishino’s art goes from nice and stylish to an absolute gorgeous feast for the eyes! Unfortunately, the series has gone on and off hiatus several times due to various injuries and illness, but Hishino nevertheless continues to draw D. Gray-Man.

Nabari no Ou (隠の王) by Yuhki Kamatami

Image from Amazon.com

Image from Amazon.com

Nabari no Ou is a lesser known shonen series that I discovered back when Yen Press published it in their manga magazine, Yen Plus. Like ultra-popular shonen series, Naruto, Nabari no Ou takes the idea of the ninja on a wild imaginary ride, but this series is no cheap Naruto knock-off. Instead of a ninja world, Kamatami re-imagines our modern world with a shadowy underbelly, where ninja clans have secretly preserved their arts and kept their identities as ninja hidden for generations. Miharu is an apathetic 14-year-old who knows nothing of this other side of the world until he suddenly finds himself attacked by a couple of ninja. To his surprise, his classmate and teacher come to his rescue as ninja affiliated with the Banten Village, who explain to Miharu that he holds a power known as the Shinra Banshou in his body, making him a target of the Grey Wolves, a group of ninja who plan to use the Shinra Banshou to fulfill their wish. His teacher, Tobari, vows to protect him until they can remove the mysterious power from Miharu, but Toabri and Miharu’s classmate, Koichi, soon discover that helping such an apathetic child will be more challenging than they had anticipated. Add to the mix a bold samurai girl with revenge on her mind, a ninja with a death wish who has every intention of getting the Shinra Banshou, and many other people all with their own affiliations and individual desires/secrets, and Nabari no Ou starts to heat up.

One of the things that I really enjoy about this series is that although the characters at first seem rather uninteresting and flat, spouting justice and good vs. bad, those bland speeches end up crumbling away in each case to reveal more complex personal motivations. Lines become blurred between “good” and “evil” as each group Miharu meets presents themselves as justified in one way or another, including the Grey Wolves, who Miharu’s allies initially paint as the bad guys, proclaim good reasons for wanting the Shinra Banshou. Yet questions always remain about whether those proclaimed reasons are the true goals, leaving Miharu, and readers, at a loss as to who to really trust. Miharu’s most trusted ally turns out to be the person one least expects. Nabari no Ou is not perfect, especially at the beginning, but stick with it and you’ll witness the simplistic film around the truth slowly give way to a dark plot with characters whose fates you’ll want to stick around to find out.

Black Butler (黒執事) by Yana Toboso

Finally, Yana Toboso’ s Black Butler gives us yet another dark version of England in the 1800s. The series currently spans 18 volumes, many of which have 51D6oCX3byL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ranked on the top-selling list in Japan, and is the inspiration for a number of anime adaptations, a live-action film, and even a musical.

The story follows Ciel Phantomhive, who is by no means a normal 12-year-old boy. After the sudden death of his parents a couple of years ago, young Ciel inherited a massive fortune and responsibilities of the noble Phantomhive family. Yet his outward responsibilities are not the only unusual thing about this rather grim-looking boy. In that incident two years before, Ciel’s parents were murdered and he was taken captive. At that time, the boy made a contract with a demon, promising his soul in exchange for vengeance. Now that demon accompanies him under the guise of the perfect butler, Sebastian, granting Ciel’s every need until the boy’s revenge is complete.

While he searches for clues that will lead him to those behind his kidnapping and his parents’ murders, Ciel acts as the Queen’s eyes in the underworld, policing the many unseen illegal activities in England. Although Ciel looks anything but threatening to thugs, they have another thing coming when the boy’s all-too-perfect butler makes a move–Sebastian isn’t about to let Ciel’s precious soul be stolen before he gets a hold of it!

Toboso’s twisted manga about equally twisted characters is oddly addicting. Like the beautiful Sebastian himself, her artwork draws readers into a world of elegant mansions, stunning Victorian fashions, and eye-catching characters only to reveal a chilling (and often violent) underside hidden beneath that pretty surface. At the center of it all lies Ciel and Sebastian, whose relationship keeps the readers on eggshells. It shifts between a tense servant-master relationship, with Sebastian’s true demonic intentions peeking menacingly from beneath his complying exterior, while simultaneously acting almost like a solid partnership, as Sebastian saves Ciel in times of need, and Ciel likewise trusts that his demonic butler will have his back. Yet the thoughts of Ciel and (especially) Sebastian remain clouded from the readers’ view. So, if dark Victorian intrigue mixed with the supernatural and warped characters with the faces of angels is your cup of tea, try Black Butler.

That’s it for this round of shonen manga created by female manga artists! I know there are still plenty more to get to, including CLAMP (Tsubasa) and Akira Amano (Hitman Reborn), which I will try to cover in a future post. As I said last time, if you have any shonen series written by women that you would like me to write about, please leave me a comment!

If you didn’t know already, shonen is a hugely popular category of Japanese comics and anime. Ask someone who knows even a little about manga or anime and she will most likely recognize shonen mega hits like Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, and Dragon Ball. The aimed demographic of this monster of a category are boys (shonen is a Japanese word that translates basically to “boy”) and many of these mega shonen hits are created by men. But did you know that there are actually a good number of shonen series created completely by women, many of which are quite popular in their own right? Here’s are some of the shonen manga I’ve read that are created by women:

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Image from Amazon.com

To Terra… (地球へ。。。) by Keiko Takemiya

To Terra… takes us back to the late 70′s and all its retro manga glory. Keiko Takemiya is one of several female manga artists who pushed boundaries back in the day to create some groundbreaking pieces of work. Among other accomplishments, Takemiya successfully crossed over demographic lines, creating both shojo (girls’) and shonen manga. (If you’d like to read more about Takemiya’s experiences and work, check out her interview on Manga.about.com.)

To Terra… is her two-time award-winning sci-fi shonen epic about a future controlled by computers and cold, hard logic. When children reach puberty, they undergo a process ridding them of memories and emotion, all in order to transform them into rational adults. Those who fail the process are systematically wiped out. But something happens when Jomy Marcus Shin fails his test. Not only does he find himself rescued and in the hands of a group of super-powered humans called the Mu, but they’re asking him to succeed their leader in the fight against the supercomputer society.

The series encapsulates a few decades and soon inserts another protagonist, Keith Anyan. Keith is a young man thought to be the perfect result of the supercomputer’s training, but who secretly struggles to suppress the question boiling inside himself as his surroundings as he rises up the ranks of the society. If To Terra… doesn’t grab you immediately, wait until Keith has been introduced before giving up on the series since he’s arguably the more interesting of the two protagonists. Keith adds contrast to Jomy’s rebellion and when their paths cross, ideologies crash against each other as the two protagonists battle. There’s action aplenty, complete with big battleships, space guns, and superpowers, but the action is tied to and mized beautifully with the internal struggles of Keith and Jomy in the fashion of a masterful psychological drama.

I also highly recommend the 2007 anime version (translated as Toward the Terra in English), which keeps close to the original, but makes some slight changes that I felt improved an already wonderful story. Additionally, if you absolutely can’t stand the style of older manga, the anime renders a more modern look to the characters.

Pandora Hearts (パンドラハーツ) by Jun Mochizuki

Pandora Hearts takes us away from dystopian sci-fi future to full-blown fantasy, complete with a healthy helping of mysterious nobles, dangerous

Image from Amazon.com

Image from Amazon.com

secrets, and magical contracts. The story opens with ever-smiling and slightly mischievous Oz Vessalius, a soon-to-turn-15-year-old son of a nobleman. Together with his little sister and faithful–if overly self-critical–servant, Gil, the young man prepares to be the center of attention as noble families gather for his coming-of-age ceremony. Things go terribly wrong, however, when an antagonist group crashes the party and sends a bewildered Oz into the Abyss, citing him for a sin he knows nothing about. With the help of a being from the Abyss named “Alice,” Oz manages to escape, but his life as he knew it is gone. Throw in two battling secret organizations, figures lurking in the shadows, time gaps, and creepy creatures from the Abyss that grant humans power as they simultaneously shorten the wielder’s life, and you have Pandora Hearts.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this series. While it may not always come together perfectly, intrigue is never lacking. like Oz’s smile that masks the emotions of a confused young man, the story never is quite what it seems. Manga artist Jun Mochizuki is a master of weaving seemingly standard tale as the main cast go on their quest for answers, only to tear away the established structures when those answers are uncovered and leave both cast and reader spinning. So, if you are looking for dark fantasy, mystery, and action rolled up into one imperfect but intriguing ride, pick up Pandora Hearts.

Blue Exorcist (青の祓魔師) by Kazue Kato

Image from Amazon.com

Image from Amazon.com

Blue Exorcist is a stylish series running in the English release of Weekly Shonen Jump, right alongside big name shonen series like Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece. Although this series runs in another manga magazine called Jump Square in Japan, in the U.S. edition of Shonen Jump, Blue Exorcist is the only series created by a woman. (You can click here to read her interview about this series on Anime News Network.)

In Blue Exorcist, 15-year-old Rin Okumura lives with his twin brother Yukio and their foster-father, struggling to express to others the goodness in his heart. Life gets exponentially more complicated when he finds out that he’s the son of Satan and daddy dearest has decided it’s time Rin came back home, whether he wants to or not. When Rin’s foster-father is killed trying to save him, the boy makes a bold decision to join the group of exorcists that are considering killing him. Thus starts an unorthodox tale of the son of Satan’s journey to become an exorcist in order to take revenge on Satan.

Kazue Kato gives readers plenty to love in this series: gripping action scenes, stylish art, twists keep coming, and cool characters that you’ll want to read more about. I especially love the exploration of relationships as Rin struggles to make connections and understand his comrades, just as they try to do the same in a high stake environment. If modern day demon hunting peppered heavily with a search to connect with others is your kind of tale, check out Blue Exorcist.

Fullmetal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師) by Hiromu Arakawa

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Image from Amazon.com

If you read my earlier post on the female characters of Fullmetal Alchemist, you already know I adore this series. Another two-time award-winning sci-fi shonen manga, Fullmetal Alchemist is set in a 19th century industrial Europe-inspired fantasy world where alchemy really works.

The story follows Edward and Alphonse Elric, two teenage brothers and alchemists on a quest. A few years ago, the boys committed a great taboo: after losing their mother, they attempted to use alchemy to bring her back to life. Their plan went horribly wrong, however, and in addition to failing to revive her, Edward lost a leg and an arm while his younger brother lost his entire body, reduced to nothing but a soul inhabiting a suit of armor. Now Edward has become an alchemist who works for the military, becoming what some call a “dog of the military” in order to search for a way to get their bodies back. Their only lead? The Philosopher’s Stone, said to be a source of tremendous power.

Fullmetal Alchemist is another series that boasts crisp, distinctive artwork, complex characters who struggle and grow, and solid storytelling. The story is packed with emotion, from heartwarming and laugh-out moments to extremely dark and tragic ones. As for action, despite the protagonists’ prowess, the action scenes will always have you holding your breath as they engage in tight battles full of alchemy. Finally, FMA has the best cast of female characters I’ve seen so far in a shonen manga and the male characters are also some of my all-time favorites. This one is an all around winner in my book.

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic (マギ) by Shinobu Ohtaka

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Image from Amazon.com

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic is a hot shonen series right now in the anime and manga community, largely because of the popular anime adaptation, which is streaming on sites such as Crunchyroll. But the anime isn’t the only hot thing. In 2013, the manga received Japan’s Shogakukan Manga Award for best shonen manga, speaking to Shinobu Ohtaka’s ability to craft a classic adventure tale with a squeeze of freshness that keeps readers hankering for more.

Pulling inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights, the story sets readers in a richly imaged world of the ancients, from the Middle East to Asia. We start in the Middle East where a curious young boy named Aladdin meets the ambitious lad with a heart of gold, Alibaba. Alibaba is determined to conquer a mysterious tower called a “dungeon,” which have appeared around the world and are said to hold as many dangers as riches. But he’s not the only one with his eyes on this dungeon; a vicious young master also enters the dungeon in hopes of riches, dragging a powerful slave named Morgiana with him. With that, a story of adventures that span across the world, chance meetings, and intertwined fates begins.

The world Ohtaka has created is full of magic and a colorful variety of cultures and kingdoms, which is one of my favorite aspects of the series. Not only does the number of distinct kingdoms allow for variations in landscape, character design, and clothing, but also for clashes in ideologies, backgrounds, and alliances. Put that together with the growing cast of characters and you get plenty of explosive and intriguing character interactions. At its weakest, this modern, manga-style One Thousand and One Nights-type of adventure is still a lot of fun. At its strongest, Magi will have you pining for the next installment.

*****

And that’s a wrap! There a many more artists/series I could talk about (such as Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (ツバサ) by CLAMP and Nabari no Ou (隠の王) by Yuhki Kamatami), but those might be for another post. It should be noted that just because these titles are created by women doesn’t necessarily mean they are free of sexism–many of these series suffer from overly sexualized female characters, damsels in distress tropes, and the like. Others features some great female characters along a vibrant cast of male ones. Regardless, one of the things I enjoy about these series is they seem to meld the emotional pull of shojo with the tight action-packed sequences of shonen, albeit some more successfully than others.

I wanted to write another post featuring shojo manga created by men, but sadly, I’ve only found a few rare examples of this, namely Osamu Tezuka. I wonder if that may be because it is more acceptable for a female manga artist to pen a series outside of the female demographic than it is for a male manga artist to make one outside of the male demographic (the shojo manga, Otomen, touches on this topic). Anyway, if you know of any male manga artists who have created shojo manga, please let me in know the comments!

Rape in Fushigi Yugi

!!Trigger Warning and Spoilers for Fushigi Yugi!!

Yuuki.Miaka.full.59136Rape is never an easy subject. It’s a thing of nightmares that happens all too often in reality so, it’s not surprising that rape makes its way into fiction as well. After all, whether it’s a high fantasy or something more down-to-earth, fiction has a way of reflecting people’s experiences, emotions, fears, and dreams. But when rape effects 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men, it’s important that the media and consumers are conscientious of how rape is depicted. In this post, I turn my attention to Yuu Watase’s Fushigi Yugi: The Mysterious Play, a popular shojo (girls’) manga from the 90s that depicts attempted rape at a rate of infamous proportions.

In Fushigi Yugi, 15-year-old Miaka gets sucked into an ancient Chinese story she finds in the library. There, she begins to live out the legend written in the story. She’s deemed the Priestess of Suzaku and tasked with needling out the seven Celestial Warriors whose destinies are to protect and aid the priestess of their country. If she’s able to accomplish this feat and perform a ceremony, Miaka and her warriors will be granted their grandest wishes by a god. But if just locating the Celestial Warriors, identifiable only by a Celestial Mark somewhere on their bodies, wasn’t hard enough, things get even more complicated when Miaka’s childhood friend, Yui, gets caught in the book and made the Priestess of  Seiryu, the priestess of a neighboring country. This country has plans to wage war so, suddenly, warriors of Seiryu come hunting Miaka and her comrades.

Here’s where we reach the problematic spot. There are a number of ways to sabotage the other side’s attempts to summon their god and make their wish. One sure way is if the priestess is put out of action. That could just mean killing her and the series certainly employs plenty of attempts of that, but Watase also frequently has her villains use another dark tactic. As a priestess, Miaka must be pure, i.e. virgin, to perform the ceremony that summons the god who will grant her wishes. Therefore, many of Miaka’s enemies attempt to rape her. Now, some may argue that in times of war, rape is sadly commonplace and if you add in the factor that rape could be used to stop your enemy from achieving their goals, it makes sense that this scheme would be used in Fushigi Yugi. But this element of the series is a major fish bone-in-the-throat for me.

Over eighteen volumes, rape is attempted around ten times by various perpetrators. That means that if there was an attempted rape in every volume, there would be one in over half the volumes of the series. In almost every one of those attempts, Miaka is the intended victim. It’s so bad that one Fushigi Yugi fan trivia poses the question, “Who DOESN’T try to rape Miaka?” In my opinion, the number of attempted rapes in the series alone suggests a problem. After all, if that many number of rapes are attempted on one girl over the rather short period of time covered in the series, it begins to look ridiculous. As a result, any serious discussion/ depiction of sexual assault within the story becomes near impossible. The way the plot is worked, real exploration of the issue of sexual assault and its effects are nil and rape is shaved down to little more than a shallow plot device to create cheap drama, just like horror flicks often turn the tragedy of murder into a gimmicky, cat-and-mouse bloodbath.

2mikosGranted, there are moments when the series tries to touch on those effects. When Yui and Miaka believe they’ve been raped, they both seem to be experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at times and it also affects their relationship with others. But mostly, characters just seem to be upset about it in the moment, only to quickly move on as if nothing happened until the next attempted rape. In fact, the only times when they do seem to suffer an after effect is when they believe the rape has been completed. On the other hand, attempted rape is brushed aside, as if everything is rosy as long as intercourse isn’t completed. When there are so many attempted rapes, it’s not surprising that Watase didn’t linger on them for long, but therein lies the problem. Sexual assault, whether it’s completed rape, attempted rape, or some other form of sexual assault, shouldn’t be made such an integral part of the story, only to be dropped once the moment of crisis has been averted. It adds drama without dealing with the meat of the problem.

The problems only multiply when we look closer at how these attempts are handled. For example, while Miaka is constantly put in this position of chilling helplessness, it usually ends in the empowerment of a male character who comes to her rescue. Her love interest, Tamahome, gets to burst in at the last moment on repeated occasions to beat the bad guy, but not before readers are forced to watch the heroine being forcefully disrobed and cry for Tamahome’s help. Did I mention this series is directed toward middle school/high school age kids?

I also find it troubling when series make readers believe a character has been raped, then cheerfully announce at a later date that it was all a lie, a plot device which is used twice in Fushigi Yugi. While it’s a much lighter read if the heroines aren’t sexually assaulted, I feel writers should commit to delving into the effects of rape through a character that has been a victim of rape rather than backing out at the last moment. The big problem with this plot device is that it once again seems to suggest that as long as the person wasn’t actually raped, everything’s okay.

I also have to wonder if some writers have trouble committing to a situation of completed rape because they don’t want to have a heroine that’s been raped. Of course, rape is a horrible thing and so using the realms of fiction to make sure nothing like that befalls one’s character is completely understandable. But when writers are putting their heroines in so many violent situations anyway, why do so many of them seem to shy away from completed rape? Perhaps it’s because they feel attempted rape is less harsh a reality for readers to grasp than completed rape–the heroine is put in a harrowing situation, but she walks away okay. But another part of me has to wonder, do so many authors avoid a real rape for fear of “tainting” their character, consciously or unconsciously falling into hurtful perceptions about rape victims? I hope I’m mistaken, but the thought nags at me whenever I come across this scenario.

What are your thoughts on how rape is presented in Fushigi Yugi and other fiction?

9a2149f150155b275461a2d912498eeaAt the suggestion of one of my readers, I recently started reading the Korean webtoon, Cheese in the Trap. Since I ended up spending most of my weekend reading all the chapters that have been translated into English, I can confidently say it’s addicting.

Hong Sul is a 23-year-old college student who has just returned to school after taking a leave of absence. Much to her surprise and suspicion, Yoo Jung, a handsome, popular, and super rich upperclassman, suddenly wants to hang out with her. While he seems like the perfect guy to just about everyone else, Sul is convinced he’s hiding a dark side.

cittThe premise may sound typical, but the execution is anything but. Switching between the past and the present, readers (and Sul) try to piece together what happened before the heroine took her leave of absence and reconcile that with the present situation. At first this can be a little disorienting, especially since some of the characters’ relationships are so different in the past compared to what they are in the present, but after a chapter or two, the pattern becomes clear and a good back-and-forth flow is established. Flashbacks often reveal something about Sul’s relationships and her experiences with people while simultaneously deepening the mystery.

Along the way, issues like bullying and stalking pop up and so far, those issues have been handled well. Those instances add drama yet are presented as serious problems. Perhaps that’s why watching Sul deal with bullies has been inspiring. Although she keeps many things (like her worries and problems) to herself, Sul speaks up and rationally confronts others when she needs to. Her attempts don’t necessarily end the problem and more often than not someone else–usually a guy–has to intervene, but there’s a sense of satisfaction at seeing her stand up for herself and others. She never feels like a damsel in distress who frivolously tries to make a stand. Her words and actions mean something and the help she receives–be it from a man or not–seems realistic.

There’s also much enjoyment to be found in the daily life of Sul and her classmates. While I’ve read slice-of-life manga before, Cheese in the Trap is one of the few that tackles the realities of college students in a way that is both entertaining and down-to-earth. How often have you seen your favorite slice-of-life characters complain about the cost of tuition? We see Sul talking to friends about school-related issues, dealing with horrid group projects, and trying to balance top grades with jobs. It’s common for school to become just a backdrop for the social drama that is the focus of the story.

Additionally, slice-of-life dramas/romances often center on the school-age heroine’s search for romance. When academics are mentioned, it’s customarily at the detriment of the heroine who is revealed to be a poor student. Making some heroines of school-based series struggling students is one thing. It’s good to represent a variety of people so, depicting such a protagonist strikes a chord with those of us who struggled in school or know someone who did. Yet at the same time, like with many of the trends and tropes I discuss on this blog, seeing the majority of those heroines fail academically gets old. Ultimately, the school girl heroine, who is supposed to represent an average, likable girl, coincides with academic underachievement and that’s not a particularly good message.

Therefore, the fact that Sul puts an emphasis on her academics set this comic apart from others that I’ve read. She works hard to get good grades so 97245321that she can get scholarships takes on jobs to support herself and get through school. She doesn’t even bother with romance because she’s afraid it will distract her from her academics. It’s made clear that Sul’s top grades aren’t the result of genius, which might have made her hard to relate to for a major of readers, but rather the result of hard work and sacrifice. Sul’s character is still that of a normal young woman, but she represents different struggles that are just as important to depict as the struggles depicted by the typical school girl type.

The rest of the cast and Sul’s relationships with them are equally remedying. The joys and troubles of relationships explored in Cheese in the Trap are not limited to those of dating and romance. Instead, there is a healthy mix of friendships, potential romances, classmates, family, and everything in between. Another nice change is that the romances aren’t presented as rosy dreams of young lovebirds, driven by destiny and the search for “the one.” While Cheese in the Trap‘s romances can be as touching as any good romance, these romances also feel more reality-bound. There are sweet, blissful moments mixed with tenser ones as the couples try to overcome issues and make their relationships work. The relationships aren’t limited to heterosexual relationships either. As the series goes on, a homosexual couple is introduced and I thought the series did a good job of creating two realistic characters who happen to be homosexual instead of two caricatures of gay stereotypes. When this couple becomes more involved in the plot, the difficulties of being homosexual when those around them aren’t so accepting is explored.

There’s so much more I’d like to say about this series, but for now, I’ll leave you all with this: Cheese in the Trap certainly has drama and mystery (and exceeds nicely at both), but at the heart of the story is a twenty-something woman trying to work her way through life, learning just as much about herself and relationships with others as she is about academics. Three-dimensional characters and relationships, a good mix of genres, entertainment, and serious issues, and an excellent execution make this a series I highly recommend.

Edit: Here is the link to a site that allows you to read the comic in English while still supporting the creator. Make sure to follow the site’s instructions on how to access the translation or you’ll just see the comic in Korean.

In my review of Disney’s most recent princess movie, Frozen, I praised it as being a more modern rendition of Disney’s classic princess formula. While I tried to briefly explain what I mean by that, my thoughts on Frozen understandably left some people a little confused. After all, what about out-of-the-box hits like Brave or Mulan? Those are both great princess movies featuring protagonists and stories unlike any of the other Disney princess movies, aren’t they? In this post, I want to clarify what I mean when I say Frozen is an improvement of the classic Disney princess formula and why I put Mulan and Brave in slightly different categories. To start, let me define what I consider to be the classic formula.

Princess Protagonist + Romance-focused Plot = Classic Disney Princess Formula

The basic elements of the classic Disney princess formula are a princess protagonist (born royal or married into it) and a plot centered around romance. That is not to say that there are not other plots in the movie other than romance, but that romance plays a starring role in the story. The classic formula is called such because these are the basic elements of the oldest Disney princess movies (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) and remains the dominate formula in their princess films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled).

On a side note, Jasmine from Aladdin is an exception to the formula because she is not the protagonist of the movie she appears in, but rather the female lead and love interest of the protagonist, Aladdin. Anyway, now let me break down why Mulan, Brave, and Frozen do or don’t fit this formula.

Mulan: Non-princess Female Protagonist = Not a Disney Princess MovieDownloadedFile-1

I’ve written about this before, but it never hurts to say it again. Disney markets Mulan as a princess. In fact, the only time we see Mulan nowadays in when a dolled up version of her appears in banners brimming with all the lovely ladies of Disney’s princess stories or in other princess-themed Disney merchandise. Therefore, it’s easy to forget that Mulan has no connection to royalty other than saving the Emperor’s hide at the end of her already epic adventure.

While Disney may call Mulan a princess, I see no reason to put her in that category. Her story is much closer to the many male-centered Disney adventures that focus on the growth of a young male protagonist and his relationship with friends and/or family. The only real similarity that I see is that Mulan is a story centered on a woman, just like Disney’s princess movies. That, however, doesn’t mean I have to include her in the princess category and since comparing Disney princess movies to Mulan is like comparing them to The Lion King or Hercules, I don’t. That comparison is fine and doable, but it’s different from comparing a princess movie to a princess movie.

Brave: Princess Protagonist + Non-romance-focused Plot = Non-Traditional Princess Movieimages-26

Brave, on the other hand, is a movie I count as a Disney princess movie because it does feature a princess protagonist. I would, however, consider this movie to be a non-traditional Disney princess movie. Why? Because Brave throws out the romance plot so central to the majority of Disney princess movies in favor of focusing on a mother-daughter relationship. Of course, other Disney princess movies I’ve classified as classic, romance-based plots feature other types of relationships, too, like Ariel’s relationship with her father, but the type of relationship that is most central to those plots is the romance. In Bravethe main plot revolves around how the heroine and her mother come to understand each other when they are forced to work together to undo a spell, pushing what may have been a sub-plot (the heroine’s relationship with her parents) in another princess movie to the forefront.

Frozen: Princess Protagonist + Romance Plot + Non-romance Focused Plot = Tweaked Classic FormulaDisney-Frozen

Frozen falls somewhere in between the pure classic formula and the non-traditional formula, but because the protagonist is a princess and romance, while not the only important plot, is still a central plot, I’m considering it an upgraded version of the classic formula. It mixes elements of the classic formula (romance) with aspects of non-traditional princess movies like Brave (focus on relationships other than romantic ones).

As I said earlier, some of the Disney movies I’ve placed under the category of “classic formula” do have other sub-plots dealing with non-romantic relationships and wishes for freedom/adventure, but those sub-plots are just that–sub-plots. They take a backseat to the main romance plot or are wrapped up tightly in it. For example, getting a chance to see a new world is acted on and achieved only through Ariel’s romance with Prince Eric; Jasmine and Rapunzel ultimately only get their desired freedom through their relationships with their love interests; Tiana has dreams of owning and running her own restaurant, but the story is not about her accomplishing that dream, but of her romantic relationship with Prince Naveen, etc. On the other hand, Anna’s romance and her wish to help/have a relationship again with her sister are equally important in Frozen. Romance is the focus of a good portion of the movie, but obtaining goal A doesn’t get overshadowed by romance nor does Anna’s romantic relationship mean the achievement of that goal.

Pocahontas probably falls somewhere in this group, too. The protagonist is a princess, but unlike Brave, there is a strong romance-focused plot. Like Frozen, there is also another strong plot running alongside the romance–the tension between the English settlers and Pocahontas’ tribe, which the heroine and her love interest try to bridge. However, it’s been years since I’ve seen Pocahontas so, that’s one I need to revisit.

Anyway, that’s it! To some, it may seem that I’m splitting hairs, but I hope this makes my stance a little clearer.

Disney-FrozenOver the years, I’ve complained a lot about Disney’s expansive line of princess tales, from Cinderella to The Princess and the Frog. Even with renditions that I liked overall, namely their adventurous undertaking of Rapunzel (Tangled), I still had moments where I felt something was left to be desired. Well, Disney, you’ve finally done it. I enjoyed your newest princess movie, Frozen, as both a story lover and as a feminist. As a movie that follows your classic princess formula, i.e. one that has romance as a focus, this is an improvement.

Like many princess tales, Frozen‘s featured protagonist is a teenaged princess, Anna, but in this case, she’s not the only one. Anna’s got an older sister named Elsa and, as we’re quickly shown, the two are close. But Elsa has a little secret. She was born with a magical, wintry power that allows her to create ice and snow with just the touch or wave of her hands. It’s all fun and games until Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her powers, which leads Elsa to close herself off from everyone to protect them. The years pass and the sisters grow distant as they live their separate lives in a castle completely shut off from the outside world. Soon, however, Elsa comes of age and must emerge for her coronation. While Elsa is terrified of what might go wrong, Anna is ecstatic and wants to use the opportunity to the fullest after the years of loneliness, maybe even find her “prince.” But when an argument breaks out between the sisters and Elsa’s powers are revealed, she’s labeled a sorceress and flees, inadvertently putting her kingdom into an eternal winter as she goes. Worried about her sister and the kingdom, Anna sets off to find Elsa, picking up some help in the form of a boy and his reindeer (not to mention a talking snowman) along the way.FROZEN_color_p2_3_V2

In recent years, Disney has made an effort to put forth princess protagonists who don’t wilt at the first sign of trouble and Frozen is no exception. Both Anna and Elsa are dynamic characters who display fears and flaws viewers of both genders can relate to while amply showcasing their inner steel as well. And although the sisters get into their fair share of difficult situations, neither feels like a helpless doll, collecting dust while they wait for a prince to save them. If anything, spunky Anna could be viewed as taking the hero’s place for her sister, although Elsa is anything but helpless and has her own crucial part to play. Needless to say, the interaction between Anna and Elsa is wonderful and while Anna’s relationships with Kristoff and Hans are very important, the plot between the sisters is just as much so. In Disney’s past princess films and many other romantic fiction, it’s been hammered home that romantic love can overcome anything, but through Anna and Elsa, Frozen wisely makes it clear that romantic love is not the only powerful form of love.

As for Elsa, overall, I like that the queen/witch character is not vilified. Typically, the queen/witch has great power and independence, but she endsElsa-and-Anna-Wallpapers-frozen-35894707-1600-1200 up ruled by jealousy, vanity, and other shallow, ugly emotions, resulting in her torment of the innocent heroine before her inevitable downfall. As a result, power and independence in women almost goes hand-in-hand with evil in many classic Disney princess movies. Elsa, however, is an independent, powerful woman who girls and boys can relate to and like. Of course, it’s arguable that Frozen‘s queen/witch character loses some of the authority and power her evil counterparts command since Disney puts her in the role of the persecuted victim. That was done to garner sympathy for a character that plays the villain in the tale Frozen is based on. This role change is something I’ll try to look at more in-depth in a later post. For now, however, I’m just happy that Disney is trying something new.

images-94Disney also continues its trend of pulling away from perfectly plastic prince charming in favor of a more layered, interesting male lead with flaws and quirks of his own. In Frozen, just as there are two female leads, there are two male leads: one prince (Prince Hans) and one average guy (Kristoff), both of which play vital roles in the story. Hans very successfully sets himself apart from the 2D princes of old and I found Kristoff to be an improvement to Disney’s gruff male lead formula. In their attempt to create a new down-to-earth male lead in the princess movies, Disney began featuring more rugged types, the opposite of the stark, clean blankness of past prince characters. The result in the last two movies were somewhat the “bad boy” type. Prince Naveen from The Princess and the Frog starts off as an egotistical playboy while Tangled‘s Flynn Rider is a wanna-be “cool criminal” type. Both were good guys deep down, of course, a goodness which the heroines eventually bring out in them. It’s a charming and fun concept in fiction, but since this trend has been used a lot and can send the wrong message about real-life relationships, I’m happy that Disney took a slightly different approach with Kristoff. As with the past two male leads, Kristoff is a little gruff with the heroine, Anna, resulting in fun and dynamic interactions between the leads, but not once does Kristoff try to pose as a “bad boy.” Instead, he’s an honest, hard-working guy who is perhaps a tad socially awkward, a trait which he shares with Anna and that reflects their mutual struggles with loneliness and isolation.

I also feel Disney has improved its messages about romance. Toward the latter half of the movie, a song starts in which one of the male leads is disneys-frozen-2013-screenshot-kristoffreferred to as a “fixer-upper.” At that moment, my heart sank, thinking this was when fiction would once again announce that if your potential mate has traits you don’t like, all you have to do is stick with and change him/her. But Disney didn’t say that this time. In fact, they made a clear effort to tell viewers that you can’t change people like we’re always told you can. Rather than searching for the “perfect” one like Cinderella or even The Little Mermaid suggest, or finding someone who has flaws that you don’t like and believing you can change those aspects as movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog seem to say, Frozen settles upon middle ground. That is, recognize that we all have flaws and don’t expect to whisk those flaws away with love. It also directly challenge the romantic idea that one can simply bump into the right person and know instantly that this is “the one.” Instead, Frozen sends the message that you must get to know someone before love truly enters the equation. In the end, it touches on the issue of accepting reasonable flaws, but cautions viewers to watch out for duds.

There are still things to improve such as including a lot more POC in their movies, but Frozen is a step in the right direct for Disney’s romance-focused princess films. After years of transition, trying to balance romantic fantasy with modern ideas, I feel they’re finally starting to hit the right notes; female and male leads who break stereotypes and standard roles, a plot with just the right touch of magic, hilarity, and heart-felt moments that both adults and kids can enjoy, and messages that freshen up an old genre, even directly contradicting old fairytale notions. I haven’t read “The Snow Queen” which Frozen is based on so, if you’d like to read an insightful post on that angle, check this post out, but just judging the film, I would recommend it as a large improvement to the classic Disney princess formula.

Enjoying Fiction as a Feminist

When I tell people that I am a feminist and especially when I reveal that I review fiction on my blog from a feminist perspective, it’s sometimes taken for granted that I dislike fiction that isn’t feminist. That’s a hell of a lot better than assuming I spend my days plotting the overthrow of men, but enjoying and reviewing fiction is a bit more complicated than that for me so, I thought I’d share my thoughts.

It goes without saying that I love finding stories that, in addition to being  generally well told, thought-provoking, and striking, promote healthy, modern ideas about gender and gender roles. When I discover those gems, they tend to get a special place in my heart, as well as on my blog. After all, finding fiction like that means I can enjoy every aspect of the story without feeling let down about gender representation. Even more than that, stories that present characters–male or female–fighting against gender norms or dealing with the real effects of gender norms in society can leave me with a sense of empowerment and make me think about gender roles in society and in media. Other times, fiction depicts characters who are non-stereotypical and appear unrestricted by gender norms, which is equally refreshing even without an obvious message on gender roles. Frankly, putting feminism aside, those types of non-stereotypical characters and plots appeal to me more as just a fan of fiction since that makes the overall story more interesting.

But to be honest, those examples aren’t particularly easy to come by. It’s like needling out one perfect book from the mounds of average ones. Excuse me for using a corny phrase, but if I had a penny for every time I crossed paths with fiction that had sexist content, I would be a rich woman. Sexism, racism, and other types of discrimination are, sadly, one of those elements of societies that are deeply engrained in our ways of thinking and are hard to get rid of entirely.

Writing on Gagging on Sexism and getting feedback from others has clarified the way I view sexism in fiction, just as it has helped me see larger issues differently. It is easy to pick out series that I personally feel do not have good stories and that promote highly sexist or archaic ideas about gender, roles, and relationships. It’s harder, however, to discuss series that I enjoy or maybe even really love in many ways, but that disappoint me in other ways relating to gender representation. Whether I am reviewing those series or simply reading/watching them for my own pleasure, as a story lover, I don’t want to dismiss a work of fiction that succeeds in entertaining me. Yet, at the same time, I am bothered by gender issues, which in one story may not be a problem, but that are often part of larger trends that promote unhealthy representations of gender. I can’t just ignore that or the problem will pass by as acceptable.

In those cases, I don’t think the stories should simply be dismissed as “bad.” Instead, I try to make others aware of these issues as they read/watch it. We can still enjoy fiction that may have non-progressive aspects and that feed into larger issues of gender representation. However, it is better to be aware of those issues as we enjoy that fiction, rather than mindlessly ingesting it.

When I write a post on a series, I try not to suggest that you to reject or accept a series based on whether it is feminist or sexist. Occasionally I come across a piece that offends me to the point that I recommend others against it, but usually I see other problems with those rare examples than just sexism. In fact, even series that I praise aren’t necessarily written to be “feminist,” but are series that I, looking at it from my feminist perspective, felt promoted ideas that are modern, non-stereotypical, and/or thought-provoking in addition to being plain good stories. In the end, whether I point out good aspects of fiction or bad, my goal is simply to stop and think, and get others to think, for just a moment to consider what fiction is saying to us.

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