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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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Image from Crunchyroll

Image from Crunchyroll

If you’ve been reading manga or watching anime for a period of time now, you have probably watched, read, or at least heard of some kind of reverse harem anime/manga centered on a chosen teenage girl’s journey to gather a band of handsome young men. Perhaps most famous of this fantasy/harem genre is Fushigi Yugi, infamous for its helpless (and rather unlikeable) heroine, Miaka, who is made the victim of multiple attempted rapes for the sake of drama. Whereas other heroines in this genre have ultimately been limited to playing the kind girl who touches the hearts of her warriors while relying on them to provide her with physical protection, Yona of the Dawn offers viewers a refreshing twist to this well-worn path. As if to respond to these frustratingly helpless heroines both in and out of reverse harem manga/anime, Yona of the Dawn presents viewers with a tale about a heroine who does not accept her own helplessness as inevitable.

Yona, the heroine of this story, certainly starts out as a heroine you might expect to see in a reverse harem manga-turned-anime. When we first meet her, she’s a typical pampered princess with no political knowledge nor useful skills. Her only two interests seem to be her appearance and her beloved Soo-won, the sweet cousin who she has loved since childhood and dreams of marrying. Her other handsome childhood friend, a young general with a rough demeanor named Hak, guards her from physical harm while her father, the emperor, spoils her and shields her from harsh realities. In this environment, Yona turns to worrying about her romance, such as what Soo-won thinks about her hair. Helpless girl who’s greatest aspiration is romance? Check. Handsome men who give viewers both a sweet guy and a guy with a rough exterior? Check. Throw in the fact that Hak clearly harbors feelings for the oblivious Yona and that Soo-won obviously doesn’t understand Yona’s feelings for him, and you have the cliche love triangle at the foundation of the harem that is to be built.

This highly standard set up is subverted, however, when Yona witnesses Soo-won kill her father in a coup d’etat. The superficiality of the first episode shatters along with Yona’s sheltered world, revealing a much more complex one behind it as characters emerge from behind their simplistic roles. Relationships, too, take on more depth at the same time revelations and betrayal tear apart Soo-won, Yona, and Hak. Initially, the shock of losing her father and Soo-won leaves Yona a husk, and Hak must coax along and protect her as they escape to safety. Hak gets multiple chances to act as the helpless Yona’s protector, but rather than rely on its heroine’s weakness to provide Hak permanent knight-in-shining-armor status, Soo-won’s betrayal becomes Yona’s turning point. She snaps herself out of her depression, opens her eyes to the troubled reality of her country, and begins her journey to find her purpose in life. Furthermore, while many a heroine has feared losing loved ones, Yona actually does something to combat that fear, picking up the bow and arrow in order to gain the power needed to protect them even as she steadily gains more able-bodied men capable of protecting her.

Is her change a reaction to Soo-won, suggesting Yona to be yet another female character whose development rides on her relationship with men? Clearly, Soo-won’s actions spurred Yona into territory she would never have otherwise tread, and thoughts of Soo-won creep up on occasions, revealing that his betrayal is definitely on Yona’s mind. Nevertheless, the story thus far has done a good job of depicting Yona’s transformation as one that expands beyond Soo-won. Her transformation becomes a personal journey as her loss and sense of powerlessness turns into frustration over her helplessness and ignorance, and determination to change herself.

Of course, Yona still must largely rely on the men’s strength at this point in the story, but that doesn’t mean her determination to become stronger is an empty promise never to be realized. Some viewers may be impatient to see the steely Yona previewed in the opening and in the flashforwards shown in the first few episodes, but in this case, I think a slower paced change will prove more effective. If Yona just woke up one day a strong-willed woman, the change wouldn’t be as satisfying or as believable as watching her experience situations that cause gradual change. Granted, it’s a fine line between showing a character gradually change and pushing the viewer to frustration, but when executed right, seeing Yona’s struggle to change becomes one of her character’s strengths.

Speaking of building character, I appreciate that Yona wasn’t made into some magical prodigy who’s able to master the bow and arrow on the first try. Instead, the show depicts Yona’s struggle to wield her weapon, not only physically but also mentally. She can’t hit anything at first, but practices every night while her comrades sleep in order to improve her skill and strength, and she must mentally prepare herself to kill if she wants to use her weapon to protect her friends. The emphasis on Yona’s training shows the viewers Yona’s determination, and depicts her strength in a way that expands beyond the superficial example of strength as purely physical. (I also enjoyed that one of the male characters related to Yona’s struggle to become strong in the most recent episode! This kind of character development doesn’t just apply to female characters, after all.) If Yona of the Dawn keeps up this kind of crafting of its heroine, she’ll easily be one of my favorite heroines!

Lastly, the way the show has handled its male characters has been pretty satisfying so far as well. Obviously, the show offers a smorgasbord of good-looking guys, but it develops them beyond cardboard cutouts of various types of attractive men. Two perfect examples are Hak and Soo-won. With them, the story takes the staple male love interest types and complicates them, making the caring Soo-won into an antagonist with a logical motive yet controversial methods and Hak neither a mindless bodyguard hunk nor a lovable jerk, but a colorful childhood friend who has grown to love the princess. With any luck, the good characterization and relationships won’t get bogged down as more characters are introduced. Handsome boys are nice to look at, but a lot more enjoyable and interesting when they have actual personality. Of course, it’s also pretty amusing when the series acknowledges itself as part of, and pokes fun at, the reverse harem genre, inserting humor into the plot with characters who display awareness of their bit to play in the harem.

While the characters may seem stereotypical at first, the show seems determined to overturn those expectations. Watching the group come together, and the characters flesh out and evolve–particularly its determined princess–has become my weekly treat. With any luck, this series will keep up its excellence. Anyone who likes fantasies with character-focused journeys spiced up with a blast of breathtaking action and/or a heroine who won’t take her fate lying down should check out Yona of the Dawn. Watch it on CrunchyrollFunimation, or Hulu.

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51hcIG8YHTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Image from Amazon.com

Despite shojo manga’s reputation for romance and shonen manga being known for endless battles, both categories place a heavy weight on relationships. Shojo manga heroines pine for seemingly impossible loves while shonen manga heroes fight against unlikely odds, building a group of trustworthy teammates in the process. But whether it’s shojo or shonen, these stories often share another commonality that may not be so wonderful: the relationships, characters, and interactions between them get tangled up in formulaic, gender-stereotyped patterns. Boys have to knock heads and throw punches before they understand each other (not to mention rescue their female fellows to demonstrate their masculinity) while guy-crazy girls enter a subtle game of war as they fight to reach the apparently unobtainable guy, caught up in getting the romance of their dreams. Such posturing does happen in real life, but fiction can exaggerate relationships according to gender stereotypes. Yet among all this hyped-up relationship drama, an understated shojo manga called Natsume’s Book of Friends seems to put aside gender stereotype-heavy plots to get at a simple yet powerful human truth–our struggles to build connections with and understand others.

Takashi Natsume, the protagonist of Natsume’s Book of Friends, knows more about loneliness than a young man his age should. His parents died when he was little, resulting in him being shuffled around from one unwelcoming relative to the next. To make matters worse, ever since he can remember, Natsume has been able to see things other people can’t–strange beings akin to spirits or demons called yokai who harass him wherever he goes. Unable to see what he does, his relatives and his peers found him creepy and considered him a liar, rejecting and isolating him. Natsume has never had a place he could call “home” or people who he felt he could confide in. Now a high school student, he still has to deal with his troublesome ability, but he thinks he’s finally found the place he belongs when he’s adopted by his distant relatives, the Fujiwaras. But his troubles with yokai increase after he finds a mysterious book called “The Book of Friends” left behind by his long deceased grandmother, Reiko. Snubbed by everyone around her because of her own ability to see yokai, Reiko took out her frustrations on the supernatural creatures, beating them in duels and then binding them to her will by collecting their names in that book. Now, with help of his new bodyguard, a yokai who looks like a ceramic cat, Natsume must deal with the yokai who pester and attack him for their names and powerful The Book of Friends.

When I first came across Natsume’s Book of Friends, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. On the surface, it may sound like many other manga before it, but while this series certainly has a good dose of dangerous encounters, it uses Natsume’s ability to see yokai to jump into issues such as isolation, trust, and the joys and difficulties of having connections with others. For much of the series so far, the story works on an episodic basis, without the immediate tensions and drama of most popular series. But I quickly got used to the pace, and fell in love with Natsume’s struggles to connect, protect, and wind his way through the complexities of relationships. And perhaps because the series attempts to tackle relationships on a more fundamental level, without the extra drama of idealistic romances or out-of-this-world battles to save humanity, it feels as if the puff of accentuated gender norms has been skimmed away, leaving organic interactions between the protagonist and those he encounters.

b10.01Natsume makes the perfect protagonist to tackle these relationship struggles. He’s been rejected so many times for being honest about what he sees that he’s closed himself off, putting on a mask of normalcy to avoid problems. Now that he’s living with the Fujiwaras, their kindness has warmed him up to connecting with the people around him, but building relationships has become foreign to him. He wants to connect to others, and wants to be honest about himself, but doesn’t know how, especially when he fears his ability will either put his friends and family in danger or cause them to reject him. Yet even as he sees yokai as a threat to his life with the Fujiwaras, Natsume’s kindness leaves him unable to walk away from yokai he becomes involved with, and he begins to see the pestering and sometimes dangerous beings in a different light. Finally, one of my favorite additions to this series is the exorcists, who complicate and challenge Natsume’s thinking, namely his growing desire to help both humans and yokai. His interactions with the exorcists teach him that although he has at last found people who share his ability to see yokai, that does not mean that they fully understand each other. All three of these groups force Natsume to confront new and often difficult questions about relationships with others, from how to balance his projected image of a normal teen with his often troubled reality, how much to let people in and how much to keep them away from his secrets and problems, to confusion about who to trust and what to say. And of course, how to understand others. Although some of these troubles may seem fantastical, taken out of the supernatural context, they are all problems that everyone faces and can relate to, male or female.

That’s not to say that Yuki Modorikawa has created a gender role-free paradise in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Gender roles still seep through, albeit in a more subtle manner than some other popular shojo and shonen series; Natsume is dubious of being carried away by a female character (even as that character saves him from a dangerous situation) until he distinguishes her as a female yokai rather than a woman; at numerous points, yokai tell Natsume to “man up” or call him a “wuss”; and Natsume’s foster parents reflect an ideal traditional household with a cheery stay-at-home mother and a father who works outside the home. They’re subtle, but if you look for them, gender roles are definitely present.

Even so, these gender norms do not feel imposed on the story as the proper way to act or live as a man or woman. In fact, the protagonist himself diverges in many ways from the typical path of male characters. Natsume isn’t bolstered as a masculine superhero who saves cute damsels in his spare time nor are the girls around him flocking like maniacs to score prince charming. The series has ample chances to make Natsume into a prince charming figure, since he does assist female yokai and girls several times throughout the stories and it’s been noted in the story that Natsume is handsome, but these details never push their way to the front. Even when Natsume is repeatedly mistaken for a female relative or told to be more of a man, he does not try to reassert his manliness by exaggerating stereotypical male qualities. He is concerned with protecting those around him, a trait often seen in both shojo and shonen heroes, but Natsume’s protectiveness feels natural, the kind of protectiveness we all feel toward people we care about, no matter our gender. Notably, he doesn’t feel more protective of his female relations and acquaintances than the male ones. He wants to keep them all safe to the best of his abilities. Natsume isn’t made out to be the complete opposite of what’s considered to be masculine like Asuka from Otomen, but he’s a wonderful example of a well-rounded male character shown to have a healthy range of emotions, and a gentleness and vulnerability mixed with perseverance that sets him apart from both male and female ideals of the perfect man.

cnatsume_yuujinchou_v05_ch16_p004_transcendence_ashitakaxtaiyouIf anything, Natsume’s grandmother, Reiko, could be said to possess more stereotypical qualities of a male manga protagonist. She is long dead by the start of the series, but her legacy of taking her frustrations and loneliness out on yokai is reminiscent of many bad boy or delinquent types such as Naruto (Naruto) or Kyo (Fruits Basket), (although this behavior is seen in female characters as well). When yokai speak of the prowess of Natsume, they usually aren’t referring to the protagonist, but rather Reiko. While his grandmother dealt with her loneliness through force and violence, Natsume takes a more peaceful approach. Although his supernatural powers are strong, he’s not particularly strong physically. Instead, his true strength lies in his growing kindness and desire to protect the things he has come to care about, a double-edged sword that both makes him more susceptible to attacks and gains him loyal and powerful friends. I appreciate that these two different types of strength (physical strength and kindness) that are stereotypically applied to one gender more than the other have been switched around in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Midorikawa discusses that she considered making Natsume a girl, but I’m glad to see a nice male protagonist who neither reeks of someone’s idealized but boring prince nor has to be the super strong man to sort things out. Having a character like Natsume takes the focus away from questions of masculinity and gender norms in favor of explorations of relationships that are less gendered than we often see in fiction.

So, if you’re tired of series that lay the gender roles on thick and want one that explores the struggles and joys of relationships in a sophisticated, bittersweet manner, I recommend giving Natsume’s Book of Friends a go. A quick note before you do! For those of you who aren’t fans of episodic stories, don’t pass this series up just yet. Although the series does start solely episodic, events and characters start to connect and reappear more frequently as the story picks up. The anime is also streaming legally on Crunchyroll.

 

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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