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Archive for January, 2015

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Image from Amazon.com

Have you ever looked at the cover of the latest fashion magazine or celebrity gossip magazine and envied the body of the featured model or actor? Have you gone to great lengths to look good, or feel bad because you don’t fit the image on the magazine? Even if you haven’t done or felt any of these things, it’s likely that someone you know has, which is what makes Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter, a josei manga about our obsession with beauty, such an unnerving read.

For a story of the hidden beastliness of the beauty culture, there’s no better protagonist than Liliko, a supermodel whose gorgeous face has all of Japan captivated. Yet behind that mask of perfect beauty lies dark secrets. Liliko smiles and titters in front of the camera, putting on an act of effortlessness, but in reality, she’s gone to the farthest lengths possible to achieve her beauty, undergoing an excruciating full-body plastic surgery in order to become gorgeous enough to make it in the modeling industry. Even so, the ticking hands of time haunt Liliko, an incessant reminder of the inevitable limit to her beauty and the interest the public has in her. After clawing her way to fame and fortune, her beauty, and the life she’s built around it, begin to unravel, and Liliko spirals further into a world of madness and violence as her desperation to stay beautiful and beloved grows.

Of all the books, manga, movies, and other fiction I’ve been exposed to, Liliko definitely ranks among the top levels of disturbed and disturbing protagonists. She attacks rivals in love and beauty, takes her hatred of herself out on others in the most twisted fashions, and in general seems the kind of unsavory character one would strive to avoid. What is perhaps most captivating about Helter Skelter is that, despite it all, Liliko’s desperation to retain her youth and beauty remains somehow understandable. Liliko exists in an amplified version of the daily pressure people experience to look, dress, and act a certain way, an industry where your worth (and income) depends entirely on your physical appeal. Low self-esteem and limited options eats at Liliko, and she relies on the image that she’s crafted to survive. It’s a job that leaves her feeling empty. In order to become the beloved Liliko, she makes herself into whatever the public desires, not just her body, but also her personality. She splits herself in two in order to present a dream Liliko to the media who manages to give the public what they want to hear without say anything at all, a pretty blank slate that reflects only fantasies. All the while she privately lets loose a personality shaped by a cruel reality.

As mangaka Okazaki suggests, however, hanging your self-worth on something as precarious as your fame as a supermodel, or more simply, your beauty, is a dangerous gamble, and one that will inevitably stop paying off. Liliko knows it, and this knowledge drives her further into a corner. She clings to a wealthy and spoiled young heir who the hardworking Liliko despises, believing that he’ll be her meal ticket when she’s too old to model. She becomes extremely antagonistic toward younger models and other women who threaten her position. And as her exterior begins to give way and all her struggling seems to be for nothing, her mental state crumbles as well. Liliko begins to wonder what her worth is when her only function is to wear clothes and pose, and tries to make herself feel better by abusing her manager, hellbent on dragging others down with her. She’s trapped, having made herself as beautiful as possible in the eyes of others yet with nowhere to go but down by the standards of society. Even her younger co-worker Kozue, the natural beauty who’s been modeling since she was a small child, cannot seem to break free of the fashion industry. Despite wanting to disappear from the public’s eye and desiring to pursue an education, she feels that her skills are limited to modeling. In one of the manga’s more surreal sections, an image of a beef cut chart slapped into one of Liliko’s dreams reiterates the sense that these women are little more than meat.

But as Helter Skelter shows, it’s not just the models trapped in a space where their worth rests on their beauty. This obsession with beauty is something that infects society as a whole. It’s interesting that the summary on Vertical’s English edition of Helter Skelter frames it as an examination of celebrity culture and the cost of fame. While it is indeed those things, Helter Skelter criticizes beauty culture, and peels back the layers to reveal a vicious cycle of body image, the media, and society.  Interspersed throughout Liliko’s breakdown are scenes of faceless girls and young women preoccupied with their looks, idolizing the illusion that is Liliko as true beauty, fretting over their flaws, and strategizing how to become prettier. Liliko’s full-body plastic surgery may seem fictitious, but it’s not too far from the truth. Women use plastic surgery in an attempt to obtain the unobtainable photoshopped beauty that we see daily on glossy magazine covers and movie posters. Ugly and disturbing as it is, what the desperate Liliko reflects is our own desperation to be perceived as beautiful, as well as our fears of aging. And it’s a never-ending cycle, as Okazaki shows us. As Liliko falls, other young women take her place, seeking beauty just as frantically as Liliko.

Okazaki’s Helter Skelter is not an easy manga to read. I knew that when I purchased it, and it sat on my bookshelf for months before I finally decided to brave this twisted josei manga that rips through the sleek appearance of the fashion industry and pop culture with knife-like sharpness. Readers should note that this manga is rated mature, and for good reasons. Although it’s presented to make an intelligent point, it nevertheless features numerous disturbing scenes of sexual abuse and violence. But Okazaki’s manga Helter Skelter isn’t supposed to leave its readers feeling warm and fuzzy. This harsh, surreal reflection of reality that Okazaki has created is meant to unnerve you. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking examination of beauty, media and celebrities, and the effects these things have on the mind, look no further.

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To be honest, one of the things that motivated me to start learning Japanese five years ago was that I wanted to be able to read manga and Japanese books that haven’t been translated into English. There’s a wealth of fantastic series and novels to partake in if you can read the language, and I’m happy to say that I’ve reached the point where I can enjoy reading some things in Japanese (although too much kanji with no furigana can still be a sure way to a headache). Now my dilemma is that even if I can read untranslated manga, I wish I could share it with those who can’t read Japanese. Of course, there are plenty of groups willing to release unofficial translations, but for the sake of making great series available to a wider readership while still giving the manga industry and the mangaka the support that they deserve, here are a few series I would love to see get official English translations:

Image from Kinokuniya

Image from Kinokuniya

ボクラノキセキ/Bokura no Kiseki/Our Miracle by Natsuo Kumeta

Bokura no Kiseki centers on Minami Harusumi, a boy who believes that the reoccurring dreams he sees of a princess are fragmented memories of his past life. Sharing his theory in elementary school, however, results in social isolation, and when he ends up using dangerous magic, a remnant of his past life, on school bullies, Minami decides to keep everything associated with his past life a secret. Yet after keeping quiet for years, assimilating into high school, and even getting a girlfriend like a normal student, he and his friends are suddenly attacked by someone who seems to have some connection to Minami’s past life. Life as Minami and his classmates knew it breaks down into confusion as the attack triggers more and more students at the school to remember pieces of their previous lives, and their new lives become increasingly tangled in the betrayals and mysteries of the past.

Going from the standard misunderstood-kid-who-finds-friends plot to something much more intricate in a matter of chapters, Bokura no Kiseki might have collapsed under its own weight in the hands of a less skilled mangaka. With two interwoven storylines, one in present-day Japan and another in a medieval-like fantasy world, there’s a lot going on. Characters try to piece together what happened in their past lives while working through present mysteries and problems that arise from remembering their pasts, such as who is really who. In order for Bokura no Kiseki to go beyond an okay manga with stock characters, the characters from both past and present must also be carefully developed. Fortunately, mangaka Natsuo Kumeta is one of those rare people up to the task of following through with such an extensive narrative and cast. At eleven volumes so far, Kumeta has proven herself a master of crafting stories, pacing the narrative just right to develop her characters and their relationships while still dipping into intense moments of action, building intrigue, and delivering compelling plot twists. In many respects, Bokura no Kiseki reminds me of the aspects that I loved about another series about reincarnation that has been translated into English, Please Save My Earth.

Lastly, gender roles seem to have practically dissolved away in Bokura no Kiseki. I initially struggled with what to say about how male and female characters are portrayed in Bokura no Kiseki because it’s a hard thing to define in a series where girls have been reincarnated as boys and vice versa. But the fluidity that makes it difficult to differentiate the boys’ roles from the girls’ is part of what I love about this series, as well as the crucial fact that it depicts female and male characters playing a wide range of parts in both lives. Its gender representation is subtle but well-executed so far. To top it off, Kumeta’s art is quite attractive, and the series offers a good mix of action, intrigue, modern and fantasy world, and even a side of romance that should please a wide range of readers.

7SEEDS by Yumi Tamura

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

The mangaka of my second pick should be familiar to at least some English speakers. Yumi Tamura’s work has been translated into English before, the most notable of those being her 27-volume shoujo epic, Basara. Although both Basara and her ongoing series 7 SEEDS transport readers to a post-apocalyptic Japan, 7 SEEDS does not have the same level of romantic elements that Basara has, with it’s plot of a girl taking her brother’s place as the “boy of destiny” and falling in love Romeo-and-Juliet style with her enemy. It’s a harsher vision, abruptly plopping its readers and characters alike in a hostile, Jurassic Park-like future. Natsu, a high school student from modern-day Japan, awakes one day to find herself with several other young men and women in this strange land without a clue as to where they are or what has happened. The truth, they find out, is that the world has undergone a change similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, and that they, and a number of other people, were cryogenically frozen as part of a top secret government project meant to safeguard the survival of the human race. Now, with nothing but the supplies they woke up with, the natural resources of the land, and each other, they must learn how to survive this dangerous future.

Despite what might sound like the premise of a B-grade movie, 7 SEEDS is truly an A-grade series. Although there are plenty of close calls with nature, the characters are the heartbeat in this relatively slow-paced narrative where sometimes the actions of characters are rather mundane, such as looking for shelter. That suits a mangaka like Tamura just fine, however, giving her the chance to show off her excellent writing skills. She builds up a strong mix of characters, getting inside their heads, slowly unraveling their strengths and weaknesses, and then letting the characters bounce off each other and grow, or fall. Tamura knows how to work drama in order to capture the reader’s emotions. She makes a smart move, too, injecting an extra layer of interest into the narrative by switching among a number of characters rather than sticking with one protagonist. This allows her to keep the momentum of the story going, leaving one party once those characters get relatively settled and moving on to another, then back again. Much of the anticipation arises from what will happen when these parties meet, and Tamura pulls out all the cards when they do, adding conflict and, yes, even a little romance at times.

Having such a large cast also shows off Tamura’s range for character writing. Both her male and female characters are wonderfully developed and are never constrained to gender roles or stereotypes. (In fact, while gender roles are not as much in focus as they are in Basara, there have been a number of moments in the series that deal directly with gender issues.) And with multiple protagonists, you’re bound to find at least one character that piques your interest.

Image from Baka Updates

Image from Baka Updates

あめのちはれ/Ame Nochi Hare/Clear Weather After the Rain by Bikke

Ame Nochi Hare is one of the more fantastical gender bending tales that I’ve encountered, but it’s also among the more interesting in terms of its exploration of gender. The plot is relatively simple. Five high school boys, Hazuki, Toma, Yusuke, Madoka, and Junta, are just getting settled into their new, all-boy school when they’re caught in a rain storm. For some inexplicable reason, the storm causes a change in them and whenever it rains, the five of them change into girls. Now, the boys must keep their odd transformation a secret while trying to navigating life and love with two identities.

Before you stop reading, imagining an empty story filled with more boob and panty hijinks than substance, rest assured that this manga is an unusually thoughtful and whimsical treat. As it is a shoujo series, there’s romance abound, and it takes rom-com levels to the max with not just one but five characters who get into all kinds of sticky situations on account of their erratic gender bending. But the true rarity of this series is that, beneath the comedic romance troubles, is a story that delves into serious discussions of gender, framing the boys’ gender bending experience as a chance for them to learn what it’s like to live as women. At the same time, we see the struggles the boys have as boys. And while we have yet to see whether any of the boys decide they prefer life as a woman, the series does expand beyond depictions of straight men and women with at least one well-developed character in the cast who loves someone of the same sex. But even if all the boys decide they’re heterosexual men, the idea of people of the opposite sex learning to understand each other’s experiences is an intriguing one, and it’ll be interesting to see what effect those experiences have on the characters in the long run. Ame Nochi Hare is a sweet gender bending series curious about the different experiences of young men and women, and I’m just as curious to see where it takes its readers next.

Well, there are some of the untranslated gems that I would love to share with others! Do you have any untranslated manga series that you’d love to receive an official translation?

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Disney Movie Poster

Disney Movie Poster

Disney has been dishing out tales about young heroes for generations, from the likely to the unlikely, from the princely to the fuzzy, so it’s no surprise that their latest animated film, Big Hero 6, returns in full swing to such heroics with a young hero’s journey to maturation. Living in a futuristic world in a fused Japanese-American society, Hiro Hamada stands out as a young man of exponential potential, a bona fide genius. Even his name suggests his chance for greatest, a Japanese name used as a pun in the film for the English word “hero.” After graduating high school at the age of thirteen, however, our soon-to-be hero, Hiro, seems more like a teenager with too much time on his hands, spending his days inventing robots to beat the pants off his opponents in robot wars, and raking in cash by winning bets placed on these robot games. Fortunately, his older brother, Tadashi, is there to guide him down the right path. But when Tadashi is killed as a result of someone’s devious plans to steal an invention of Hiro’s, Hiro decides to catch the person responsible. Joined by his friends and Baymax, the robot his brother had created, they turn themselves into a team of superheroes up to the job of bringing down a super villain. Yet for all its classic stamps of a hero’s tale, this film makes some notable changes that push it beyond being just another action flick. 

Perhaps most apparent of these changes is the diversity of the characters. Gone are visions of an all-white cast in Big Hero 6, replaced with a racially diverse group of heroes fit for a modern audience. Hiro and his friends come from a number of racial backgrounds, but none of them are limited to “representing” their race, instead acting as unique individuals. Not only is this group racially diverse, but also offers characters of both sexes who, for the most part, pull away from stereotypical presentations of gender. For example, independent Go Go may be a petite woman, but she’s not afraid of breaking rules or charging the enemy while Wasabi is a strong male character who prefers caution, order, and rules. I was most fearful of Honey Lemon who, at first glance, appears to be a stereotypical girly-girl–blonde, chipper, and fashionable. But the movie does a good job of showing that Honey Lemon is indeed all of those things, but she’s also a brilliant chemist, and certainly not confined to being one thing or the other. Even Fred, a “dude” who harkens back to stereotypes of young men as unhygienic and not particularly bright has some surprises up his sleeve. It’s also clear that Fred isn’t supposed to representative of male behavior.

Speaking of how men are represented in Big Hero 6, one of my favorite aspects of this film is how Hiro’s narrative diverges from typical representations of masculinity. Now, in many regards, Hiro acts as a traditional hero, but Big Hero 6 does something that I don’t see very often; it scrapes away what appears to be just another tale of a righteous hero taking down a bad guy to examine issues of revenge and grief.

The revenge plot is nothing new. I’ve seen the loss of a loved one (usually a woman) used as a plot device to spur a male character into action. Yet in many of the examples I have seen or read, the focus becomes his actions instead of his emotions. In these cases, bursts of anger, while an expression of grief, obscure the male character’s sadness over the loss, and put the consumer’s attention on his actions toward the perpetrator as that anger takes the form of violence. Of course, anger is a natural reaction, too, but when fiction puts the emphasis on the male character’s anger without fully exploring it as a facet of his sorrow, it reinforces concepts of masculinity that suggest that the acceptable way for men to express sadness is through anger. Because revenge plots often are part of action films, the stereotype gets taken one step further, with the character acting on on his anger through violence. As such, these representations take us even further from reflections of the male character’s psychological state.

Big Hero 6, however, turns our attention back to emotions. Much of this is thanks to Baymax, a puff white robot that looks like a walking marshmallow. Tadashi created Baymax act as a kind of robotic nurse so Baymax’s priority remains both Hiro’s physical and mental health even as Hiro tries to make him into a fighting machine, reminding viewers of the difficult psychological issues that Hiro is experiencing. Hiro’s attitude toward Baymax reveals his attitude toward his mental health; he would rather fight than address his grief, and he spends much of the movie trying to resist facing his emotions. But his emotions are at the heart of everything. The movie carefully depicts his depression, managing to show a grief-stricken Hiro shutting himself off without making it too depressing for kids, and how he latches onto catching the person responsible for Tadashi’s death in order to pull himself out of his depression.

While it may seem like Hiro’s emotional status takes a backseat to action as Hiro, Baymax, and company prep themselves for a fight, closer inspection reveals the movie setting up a contrast of two different ways of handling Tadashi’s death: on the one hand is revenge, and on the other is interaction with friends and family. Hiro assures Baymax–and perhaps himself, as well–that catching the guy will solve his mental health problems, but what Big Hero 6 argues can truly ease Hiro’s pain is the company of his friends and Baymax. With their help, Hiro slowly comes to terms with his brother’s death, his own grief, and, in turn, is able to keep his brother’s will alive. The path of revenge and violence, in contrast, leads only to further destruction in this narrative.

Despite its status as a kid’s movie, Big Hero 6 delves into some hefty discussions of love, grief, and violence. Big Hero 6 suggests that violence won’t solve the true aliment, and, with the healing touch of Baymax, asks its male lead to confront his loss in another way, a refreshing change to presentations of heroes handling sadness. Of course, Disney provides for those itching for a good old fashioned hero-villian face-off, complete with plenty of flying robots, superhero suits, and even a classic revenge plot in Big Hero 6, but in the end, the movie’s real magic shines where the standard hero’s narrative has been reworked to suit a more modern audience.

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