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Posts Tagged ‘shojo’

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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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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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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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.

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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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!!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?

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Have you ever come across the word “feminist” or “feminism” in context that just doesn’t make sense? It’s a word that seems to have been coated in a thick layer of dirt in the past couple of decades, covering up the true meaning with a nasty overcoat. Something that means equality has been mutated into a fowl word, the thing you won’t call even your worst enemy, something that twists the young and innocent. Just take Rush Limbaugh’s lovely mutilation of the word into “feminazi.” Unfortunately, a large group appears to have adopted and internalized this warped sense of the word so, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that misuse of it occurs in fiction at times. After reading soaringwing’s post about a convoluted comment about feminism, I decided to do my own calling out of problematic usage.

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Take a look at the image above. This is a scene from Kaori Yuki’s Grand Guignol Orchestra,  which follows a small band of very unusual members of an orchestra that cleanse people who have turned into doll-like zombies through a strange virus. In this particular episode, Eles, Lucille, and company have arrived at the mansion of a certain Lord Red-Beryl. The lord is a young man with an apparent obsession over beautiful women. The only reason the orchestra was allowed onto the lord’s premises was because he mistook Lucille for a woman and the only people in sight are all young, beautiful girls who act as his maids, servants, and guards. The group finds out that Lord Red-Beryl has dreams of protecting every woman he can and also of finding a woman he can marry, all for the sake of his mother who had a difficult time after her husband died when their son was only a boy. After discovering all of this, the conversation above about Lord Red-Beryl takes place between Eles and the other orchestra members.

Now, the first problem with this usage of the word “feminist” is that it just doesn’t make sense in this context. Eles says the lord isn’t a feminist, that he simply has a mother complex, but that seems to imply that the lord’s behavior resembled that of a feminist’s in some way. However, before Eles mentions it, feminism did not enter my mind in the slightest while I was reading this section of the manga. If anything, maybe sexism, but certainly not feminism. While Lord Red-Beryl appears to respect his mother, the way he treats other women doesn’t seem like the behavior of someone who sees women as equal to men; I might argue that someone who thinks all women need the protection of a man suggests that women are weaker than men and is, in fact, sexist. When you take into account how Lord Red-Beryl treats the women around him (telling them how to dress, using them as servants which inevitably puts them in a position of considerably less power, and viewing each new (beautiful) girl as someone he could wed for his own benefit), sexist seems the much more likely choice.

As for the second comment about the difference between a leecher (essentially someone who takes from others and gives nothing back) and feminist being paper-thin, that’s just a plain insult. While this could be simply a reflection of the character, because no one denies or contradicts his remark, the idea that feminists are like leechers just sits out there, virtually accepted. Feminist has taken on a negative connotation in this day and age, to the point that even those who believe in equal rights for women won’t call themselves feminists, and this rather random insult in a manga reinforces that connotation. Feminists have been equated to extremists who want more, more, more and women with chips on their shoulder who hate men. If you truly believe that women are equal to men in every society, it may seem that way, but if you look at things like what women get paid in comparison to men who work the same jobs (in the U.S., it’s 77 cents (if you’re a white woman) for every dollar a man makes), the glass ceiling and second shift effect, gender roles and stereotypes, and even more serious issues in certain countries, there are still reasonable issues that feminists are trying to work on. Are there people who call themselves feminist who may be extreme? Probably, but most feminists are average people who see that equality between sexes is still an ongoing process.

Sadly, there are a lot of misconceptions about feminism buzzing about so, if you see any iffy usages of it in fiction and don’t have a blog of your own, please tell me about them so I can call those mistakes out.

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How many times have you read a story about a nice girl head over heels for a guy who seems to treat her like dirt yet is still supposed to be a “good” guy, the guy all the girls dream about? Fiction often gives us tales that are more fun in one’s dreams than in reality and the rough, forceful guy appears to have landed a place in the dreamworld of many a teenage romance stories. But what does it say to young readers, both male and female, if the guy who treats the girl poorly ends up capturing the girl’s heart, sometimes over the choice of a “nice guy” rival? It’s one thing to see that scenario once or twice every couple of years, but when it’s in every other story, people unconsciously start forming ideas over what they read and see everyday. That’s why I was happy to see one manga series that seems to have something else to say about romance to its readers.

In Otomen, Asuka, the guy who loves things like cooking, sewing, romance, and cute things, falls for Ryo, the girl who can’t cook or sew, but can show you martial arts skills that would make even a burly guy think twice about challenging her. It’s the typical opposites attract, but instead of the good girl-bad boy combination that seems so prevalent nowadays in which the good girl must soften the guy’s hard exterior, Asuka and Ryo accept each other as they are and help each other grow. As two people who fall outside gender stereotypes, it can be hard on them to accept themselves at times. Asuka especially is burdened with self-doubt about himself. When he first meets Ryo, he worries that she won’t like a guy who has “girly” interests. But when Ryo discovers Asuka is, in reality, not someone who society would traditionally call “manly,” she doesn’t like him any less. In fact, she accepts him completely, making Asuka realize he wants to, and can, show Ryo his true self. Ryo’s one of the first people he’s felt like he can truly be himself with.  When Asuka starts to feel down about himself, Ryo is always there, cheering him up and accepting every part of him.01_050

While Ryo is much more comfortable with herself, even she has moments of self-doubt. When Ryo is elected to represent her class in a contest to find the most ideal woman in the school, Ryo feels a lot of pressure to not let her classmates down. But she knows that while she might look pretty, internally, she doesn’t match what society thinks an ideal woman is: a woman who is delicate and demure, can cook beautiful and tasty meals, make tea, clean, etc. She’s not good at household things and would choose an action flick over a romance any day. She tries her hardest, but after failing the first two rounds, her classmates are calling her clumsy and Ryo feels she’s a disappointment. Asuka attempts to cheer her up, but Ryo says she’s realized that as a woman she needs to learn things like sewing and cooking and generally how to be more feminine. In one of my favorite moments so far, Asuka confesses he likes her just the way she is and wants her to stay like that. He tells her that if she can’t cook or sew, he can.lotomen_v05_p043

In a way, that really sums up what Asuka and Ryo’s relationship is like; what Asuka feel he lacks, Ryo makes up for and vice versa. It’s one of the most balanced relationships I’ve seen in more recent shojo. Is it a little too rosy and perfect? Yes, but in comparison to other romance fantasies, I love this one which shows a type of relationship with an underlying message that’s healthy and modern: find someone who thinks you’re wonderful for all your faults and all your strengths and support each other.

If that isn’t enough of a message for you, Otomen also goes so far as to make fun of the jerky love interest type. One of Asuka’s friends, Yamato, a boy who looks like a girl, but wants to be manly, struggles with impressing girls so, he does a practice date. It turns out Yamato is one of those people who buys into the idea that jerky guys are cool and as a result, he comically makes a mess of his practice date. He shows up late dressed like a punk(?) because cool guys are supposed to make their girls wait, tries to act tough, pulls his “date” forcefully along without saying anything, and more. I loved this chapter since everything Yamato does to be the “cool” jerk ends up going over poorly. While stuff may seem romantic in fiction, it may not be so cool in real life and Otomen depicts this in quite an amusing fashion.

What do you think? Is Otomen giving readers a better idealized relationship or is it just another example of unattainable perfection? And what do you think of the other relationship trends in fiction? Seriously problematic or just fantasy?

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