Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Some retrospective re-reading commentary on volumes 1 and 2 of Sasameki Koto

 A million years ago, I reviewed the first two volumes of Sasameki Koto. Now that the series is approaching its twilight, I thought I'd re-read the entire thing and post some more reviews before giving Sumi and Ushio, those two crazy kids, their proper send-off after volume 9 comes out. (This post is less of a review-review than a rambling series of notes I typed while re-reading.)

I didn't remember all of the moments of stupid Kiyori had in the first volume's opening scene. (Calling Ushio's lesbianism an illness, being confused because Ushio was a lesbian attending a co-ed school, suggesting that Ushio could get a boyfriend since she's pretty.) But I like how Ikeda Takashi just calls out the obnoxious/stupid/hurtful things that some people think about lesbians in this scene and blows raspberries at them. (I especially like how he subverts the "she's gay because she's at a girls' school" cliche by turning it into "she tried to get into a girls' school because she's gay.") And not only Kiyori's ignorance, but Sumi telling Ushio that girls can't fall for other girls. Kiyori and Sumi's opening characterization not only serves to skewer the assumptions they're parroting, but provides a great springboard for character development. (Kiyori quickly becoming Ushio and Sumi's most supportive straight friend, and Sumi becoming more comfortable/less defensive about being gay herself.)

And I'd forgotten about how sad the first chapter is. It does a great job of making one want to give the main characters a hug. (And tissues.) It also realistically captures what it's like to be caught in an episode of high school drama- the kind that doesn't seem like a big deal in retrospect, but consumes one's world at the time it's happening. Anybody who's been in high school can relate to it.

The remainder of these two volumes has a more even balance between humor and bittersweetness. My favorite scene in the first volume is still Sumi and Ushio's first "kiss." ("My first (pseudo) kiss with the girl I loved...The cold taste of plastic.") I can't think of many manga scenes that manage to be as funny and heart-twinging at the same time.

Which...brings us to our wonderful second couple, Tomoe and Miyako. I really like it when yuri series include two or more yuri couples who befriend one another. (A couple of other good examples are Haru Natsu Aki Fuyu and Fu~Fu.) Yes, Sumi and Ushio haven't actually gotten together yet...but it's still nice that they have other lesbian friends at school. (Part of why I like the Sumi-Ushio-Tomoe-Miyako scenario so much is because, wishful thinking aside, I didn't know any out gay or bisexual girls in high school.)

The biggest dead spot in the series is still the date-with-Akemiya chapter. Manaka is far and away the worst character in SK.

Some people probably find Aoi annoying, but screw them. I love her character arc, in all of its otakuriffic glory. (And duh, of course I like her for being a squealing yuri fangirl.) She does say and do some stupid, immature things, like the rest of the teenaged characters, but nothing beyond the pale for someone her age. I also like the love triangle dynamic she briefly brings into the story, even though she's never, thankfully, a remotely serious threat to Sumi's feelings for Ushio. (Quite the contrary, Ushio only begins to realize her feelings for Sumi after catching her in an accidentally compromising position with Aoi.)

And I still love the last chapter of volume 2. It's not only 24 pages (25 if you count the "Useless Addition") of Sumi x Ushio goodness, it's noteworthy for being the first time someone (Ushio's brother) comments to Ushio about her girlfriend-like behavior towards Sumi.

Story: B+ for volume 1, A- for volume 2
Art: B
Overall: See Story.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Alice Quartet Obbligato

Alice Quartet Obbligato isn't the most yuri-ful Fujieda title but, as a yuri-friendly slice-of-life about four fashion designers, it's a good choice for something pretty and relaxing.

In a boutique that was once a church, four clothing designers work under the collective name "Alice Quartet", or "AQ", although each one has her own distinct clothing line. Their common denominator is that they only use black and white materials.

Makino (or "Makinon"), the one with the most seniority, designs Lolita outfits under her "La Croix de Lune" label.

Fumi, whose line is called "Saya", draws on classic Japanese fashion, as well as the voice of Maria-sama, for her inspiration. (You may remember her sobame audition in Iono-sama Fanatics.)

Yuuki, whose line is called "Aqua Drop", does androgynous(-ish) clothing. All of AQ's outfits are sumptuous, but her designs are my favorite.

Suika, the newest member of AQ who designs a line called "P's", doesn't have a set niche yet. Her clothes tend to have more of a youthful, everyday wear look than the others', while still being trendy.

And Yukino (or "Yukinon"), who used to be Makino's classmate, owns and runs the shop and is head-over-heels in love with "Makinon." Yukino acts silly when she flirts with Makino because she thinks that Makino wouldn't know how to react if she behaved more seriously.

The story depicts a handful of episodes in the designers' day-to-day lives. A tough deadline that needs to be met, a solution to having to do a photo shoot outside on a blazing hot summer day, different members of the group experimenting with designing a look outside of their usual style...and the penultimate chapter is a date (of sorts) between Yukino and Makino, set up by Yuuki, Suika, and Fumi. In the final chapter, the characters have a party to celebrate the 2 year anniversary since their store opened.

As in Iono-sama, there are some cute bonus comics by Minamoto Hisanari, Fujieda's assistant who is currently drawing Fu~Fu.

It isn't anything deep, but it has Fujieda's characteristic graceful storytelling style, charming humor, and lack of service. The fact that all of the characters are likeable and range from ambiguously gay to canon yuri certainly doesn't hurt it.

Story: B
Art: B+ (Aside from the clothes, which are A+)
Overall: B+

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Japan Retrospective

About two more weeks until classes start for my senior year. Until then, I don't have much to do besides reading and watching stuff and glutting myself with bon bons while reclining on silk pillows or whatever. ^_^; *scratches back and flops down on couch*

For six weeks, I commuted to three different sections within the Shinjuku branch of the company I worked for and did whatever was needed- ranging from helping set up events and orienting guests, sitting in at a conference with the heads of the international branches of the company (which really surprised me), meeting with clients from other companies (my company could be like, "Check out our international intern!"), and translating PR materials and a manual on information security to English (my two main projects), to the grunt work expected for interns, like filing, making copies, and stamping envelopes, delivered to my desk by co-workers smiling as of they were handing me candy. (Turns out I can map out my chromosomes using a blood sample more easily than I can use the office copy machine without screwing up. Ugh.... I did learn, though.)

Luckily for my wallet, I was treated for a lot of lunches by co-workers who wanted to ask questions. ("Why did you decide to come to Japan?", "What are your hobbies?", "How do you parents feel about you coming here? Are they supportive/lonely/worried about the radiation?", "What Japanese foods do you like?", etc.) What really made me happy were the repeat invitations, when I treated myself but knew that whoever invited me wasn't just doing it out of politeness or curiosity.

I'll admit that I became self-conscious about letting co-workers know that I like anime and manga whenever I was asked, because I didn't want that to be seen as my sole defining characteristic. I became really self-conscious that I wasn't being taken seriously behind my back after some old businessman I'd never spoken to smiled at me while saying, "Isn't she that Akiba-kei otaku who's obsessed with going to Akihabara and is only here because she likes anime?" to someone else. (I only mentioned my hobby when other people asked me about it.) When I expressed my concern about people bringing up my anime hobby often (yes, I know I was being hyper-sensitive), my superior said that a lot of foreigners who go to Japan like anime, so it was something they assumed would be something I would want to talk about. (The old man was the exception- most people did seem genuinely innocuous when they brought it up.) And the topic came up less relative to other topics after that (and I made it clear that I wasn't just in Japan to otaku it up to any new co-workers who asked about my hobbies), so word must have spread, in a good way. I wound up getting a great recommendation letter from my superior describing my work for the company and, at the end, a send-off party. (One co-worker gave me some Rose of Versailles stamps, since I'd named it as a favorite. It really is a favorite of mine, but I named it whenever co-workers asked me for a "favorite" example because everyone there knows it.) Despite the little bumps, it was an overall great experience and the people I worked with were really nice and helpful.

And no, I never brought up my sexual orientation at work. Nice as my co-workers were, I didn't think it was the best place to break out the rainbow flags.

When I came back, my dad asked how this trip compared to the semester I spent in Japan in my junior year of high school. This time was much better, no question. (And probably no surprise to anyone reading this.) I had much more independence- no curfew (my host family gave me a 6:00 curfew; you can imagine the warm feelings it elicited from me), no host mother exchanging a diary with the school assistant principal to keep track of what I host family trawling my internet history. (My host father pointedly said, "I know which websites you've been visiting" one day. I assumed he meant the gay ones like Afterellen, but I reacted with complete apathy- as if he'd said "Pass the salt"- even though I was sweating bullets on the inside, and he didn't mention it further.) Plus, I lived right in Ikebukuro instead of an hour outside of Tokyo by train this time. ^_^V (That said, the town I lived in in high school had its own charm, and it was good to experience day-to-day life outside of Tokyo.) Also- I was much, much more homesick back then.

Besides sightseeing around Tokyo, I spent a day in Yokohama (a woman two years older than me who lived in Yokohama, who someone I knew introduced me to, showed me around; she was also the person I did my one karaoke session of my time there with, in Shibuya; I/we sang songs from Utena, Sailor Moon, Marimite, Strawberry Panic, Kannazuki no Miko, Nanoha, Evangelion, Escaflowne, Serial Experiments Lain, and Railgun) and a day in Kamakura. (It was my second time in Kamakura. My first time was on a class field trip in high school.) Along with visiting several of the Shinto and Buddhist sites there, I visited the Yoshiya Nobuko Memorial Museum. It wasn't open during my time in Japan (it's only open a few days each year), but I still wanted to thank her and pay my respects. Right nearby was the Kamakura Museum of Literature, which Shimura Takako based Fujigaya's exterior on. (Including the path the characters take to school.) I geekariffically continued my Aoi Hana sightseeing by going to the Milk Hall on Komachi street.

By the end of my time there, I had a lot of fun memories and a mountain of doujinshi to drag back. (On the afternoon of my last day there, I met a friend in Akihabara and visited a relaxing, low-key maid café he highly recommended before hitting some doujinshi shops to see if I'd missed anything good at Comiket, along with the gajillion other nerds who had the same idea.) I'm definitely looking forward to visiting again.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Iono-sama Fanatics volumes 1 & 2

Fujieda himself notes that Iono-sama Fanatics isn't a love story between two women as much as a yuri-flavored comedy- and it works, even if I do like his straight-up love stories more.

Hachibe Eto is a normal office worker who whiles away her days at her normal office job. Iono is the eccentric queen of a small, obscure country, who has come to Japan to pick up women for her country-sized harem of sobame. ("Sobame" can mean "ladies-in-waiting" or "concubines.") I say "country-sized" because the only people from Iono's country shown or referenced are her hordes of fangirling sobame.

Iono fixates on Eto as soon as she sees her, and a reluctant Eto eventually becomes thoroughly charmed and joins. Accompanying Iono in Japan are: her lovestruck childhood friend Cass, who tries to thwart Iono's attempts to woo more sobame; her beautician Aida, who acts as a mellow foil to Cass and has a girlfriend of her own; Frechet (I'm sticking with that spelling over Infinity Studios' "Fletch", which sounds like a disease), Iono's cool gun-totting bodyguard; and Frechet's sword-wielding daughter Ar, who also protects Iono. Eto's biggest worry is that she doesn't have any noteworthy skills (at least, compared to the other sobame), but Iono's just happy spending time with her.

Towards the end of the first volume, Iono holds a competition to pick one more sobame. The winner is Tagoto, who competed under the assumption that "sobame" means "soba chef." Tagoto and Frechet become an adorable, drama-free couple for the rest of the series.

In volume 2, Iono asks Eto if she'll come back with her to her home country and before Eto can give a definite answer, she gets kidnapped by an assassin (seen in volume 1 as a sobame contestant) who was sent by another country's princess who thought she was jilted by Iono. Of course, Iono and her group save Eto, the bad guys aren't really bad, and everything resolves with a fun, slightly "wtf"-inducing epilogue.

Again, this isn't Fujieda's best...but it's consistently funny and well-written, has a lot of slick action scenes, doesn't have any cringe-making service, has a cast of characters who are completely matter-of-fact and comfortable with their sexual orientation, and isn't girls' school series #38489890. I would have liked the ending more if Iono had given up looking for sobame after marrying Eto, but this series is too goofy and tongue-in-cheek to really be taken seriously. Iono's a fun, funny choice for something different from the norm within the yuri genre.

Story: B
Art: B+
Overall: B+

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Twinkle Saber Nova volume 1

It wasn't until recently that I decided to finally check out Twinkle Saber Nova. I like Fujieda's manga, but took forever to read this one. ^^;

Twinkle Saber Nova takes place in the future, in a high school where "free will" is the school creed. The  school exists to facilitate its students' dreams, whatever they might be.

Such an amazing school seems lost on spacey Hayana, who cheerfully bounces from meal to meal without a care in the world. One day when she's having lunch at her favorite school restaurant with her friend Aoi, the school's World Domination Club shows up to take over the restaurant. Even though they want to conquer the world, it's a little big, see, so they decided to start with their school. But their school's a little too big for them to takeover at once, so they're really starting with one of the school restaurants. Kirie-sensei saves Hayana and Aoi, and tells them that they can fight the WDC if they join Sensei's Allies of Justice Club...which currently has no members. Hayana decides to join and gets to wear the battle armor that Sensei developed. The WDC continues to ineffectively try to take over different portions of the school, only for Hayana to defeat them with a smile.

Twinkle Saber Nova is cute, but it's Fujieda's weakest series. The characters don't leave much of an impression (I only remembered Hayana's name because it reminds me of Ayana from Hayate x Blade) and the story (WDC causes trouble, Hayana instantly defeats them) becomes repetitive by the end of this volume. (Even the introduction of a new female AJC member who has a bit of a crush on Hayana doesn't do much to spice up the story.) Fujieda's sleek art is TSN's biggest draw, along with its refreshing lack of service. There are also some charming humorous moments (mostly involving the villains) and Fujieda puts a lot of care into world-building for Hayana's school. Not above average, but definitely not below average either.

Story: C+
Art: Starts at a B, sharpens into Fujieda's current B+
Overall: C+

I'm going to keep on rolling out Fujieda reviews (Iono, Alice Quartet, and MikoMajyo) until I've covered all of the series by Fujieda that I haven't reviewed yet, by the end of summer vacation. (It's so nice to be home! X3 I'll do another post about my time in Japan- but I thought that I should review something again, first.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Comiket Days 2 & 3, Takarazuka, and Kabuki

After months of anticipation, Comiket's over. ^^

Today was the big shopping day for me, when the doujinshi circles whose booths I most wanted to find were selling doujinshi- Myao (Morinaga Milk), UKOZ, Sakuraike, Atelier Miyabi (Miyabi Fujieda and Minamoto Hisanari), and Kaishaku. UKOZ, Sakuraike, and Atelier Miyabi were in the West Halls, while Myao and Kaishaku were in the East. I mostly bought what I wanted to buy and told the mangaka from whom I bought it, "I love your manga!"/"I'm a fan of your manga!"/"I love so-and-so-title!" (Or in Kaishaku's case, "I've read your manga.") Morinaga Milk was the first person I tracked down (she's very sweet, seems to be in her 30's, has long auburn hair), and the person who I got chills from meeting the most. (I reverently asked a woman helping her sell her doujinshi, "Are you Morinaga Milk?" and she said, "No, she is", pointing to the woman seated next to her. I hope Morinaga didn't see me when I jumped after walking away from her table. ^_^;;;) She seemed really surprised by my saying that I was a fan of Kuchibiru Tameiki Sakurairo and Girl Friends (every person I introduced myself to today reacted with some surprise), and wanted to know which country I was from. She was selling a Madoka Magica doujinshi, an Ami x Rei Sailor Moon doujinshi and the one I was most excited about, her Ai no Chikara ("The Power of Love") doujinshi, about two police women. UKOZ sold several original doujinshi and a couple of Hayate x Blade books. Sakuraike sold all-original doujinshi, two of which were yuri. Atelier Miyabi sold a Madoka Magica doujinshi, a rather thick The Idolm@ster doujinshi called White Platinum, a Tiger & Bunny doujinshi, a Touhou doujinshi, and some K-ON! doujinshi. I found Kaishaku last, since I accidentally wrote that they were in the West area instead of the East. ^_^; They didn't have any doujinshi displayed (and I didn't especially want any, although I would have bought one if it were out), but I introduced myself anyway. It's fascinating to actually see the people behind so many of the titles I've read over the years, having spun larger than life impressions of them based on their work.

After Comiket yesterday, I attended my first Takarazuka show. The Flower Troupe performed Phantom, Takarazuka's version of The Phantom of the Opera. It was excellent. The actresses played their characters flawlessly. The actress who played Carlotta, especially, seemed to have fun with her role. It was lush and glitzy and over-the-top and everything I expected from Takarazuka, complete with a final music hall dance number that had absolutely nothing to do with the main story. I got some souvenirs at the gift shop (including an admittedly hot clear file of the Flower Troupe's Top Star, Ranju Tomu, and possibly a fan t-shirt; each troupe's Top Star has her own merchandise area in the store) during the intermission. After the show, I went outside where the fans were lining up along both sides of the street in front of the theater to snap photos of, squeal over, and hand letters to the show's stars as they slowly (very slowly) came out one by one and walked to their cars with security escorting them. Some fans continued to watch them intently as they drove away, still snapping photos. (One star waved from her car, prompting a burst of waves from the fans who were watching her.) It was quite fun. ^_^

This past Friday, I attended Takarazuka's most popular male equivalent, Kabuki, at the Shinbashi Enbujo Theater. It began with a 30 minute comedy about a lord and his wife. At first, the wife was a "good" wife who gave her husband massages, served him his drinks, etc, but she eventually realized that he was a good-for-nothing. Of course, this meant that she became a domineering shrew, but she learned the error of her ways after her husband feigned being attacked by a burglar. The second, longer play- which I liked more- was a ghost story. A famous painter's apprentice wanted the painter's wife so, after raping her under the threat of killing her baby, he threatened the painter's loyal servant (who acted as the play's clown) to help him kill the painter. He took over the painter's estate and ordered the servant to take the baby to a waterfall and drown it. The painter's ghost saved the baby and gave it back to the servant, who was then attacked by a man the apprentice sent to make sure he did what he was supposed to. The ghost killed the would-be murderer by dragging him into the water, and temporarily paralyzed (but didn't kill, for some reason) the apprentice when he showed up to kill the servant and baby. The stage had a large running waterfall during this scene, and it was a lot of fun to see the actors chase and fight each other in it. Finally, an actor introducing himself as the story's "author" showed up and told the audience that the servant raised the baby using "milk-like water" that dripped from a miraculous tree. When the baby was five, he avenged his father's death. For the waterfall, the one actor who played three roles, and the ludicrous ending, it was fun. (But not nearly as awesome as Takarazuka.) So, yup. Enjoyable past few days.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Comiket Day 1

I almost labeled this post "つかれた.” I had a great time at Comiket today, but it was tiring. ^_^; I met up with Fernando Ramos (a.k.a. @HelloNavi), a Comiket veteran who I met via Twitter.

We both thought Comiket was supposed to open at 10:00 this morning, but the line didn't start moving until until 11:00. (Once it started moving, we got in pretty quickly.) Luckily, the Comiket staff handed out Madoka Magica fans to the people waiting to get in (they ran out of Homuras before I could get one, dang-it; I got Kyouko and Sayaka instead) and I had an an umbrella.

We went to the company booths area first, where we swam through the crowd to get to the line for Ichijinsha. (Most of Ichijinsha's merchandise was for Yuruyuri, as expected, but I only wanted Sayuri-hime. A million thanks to Fernando for patiently waiting in line.) Then we got lunch at a restaurant (Big Sight has several restaurants) and went to the cosplay area, which was outside. It. Was. Awesome. There were some fantastic cosplayers, but my squeal-inducing favorites were the two women who cosplayed as Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune. Did not expect to see them, even though Fernando wasn't surprised. I also briefly stalked a woman dressed as Possessed Himari from Mawaru Penguindrum, because her costume was great and Fernando hadn't noticed it, and I was very sensibly like, "Really, you have to see this costume from this awesome show that you haven't seen!!"

Then Fernando left Comiket for another engagement and I explored the doujinshi halls. The first day of Comiket is BL-centric, although there's still some yuri and het. It was interesting to see the variety in the rows and rows and rows and rows of doujinshi tables and people-watch the sellers and buyers. Definitely looking forward to tomorrow. ^_^

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Marimite in the 50s: Sakura Namiki ("The Rows of Cherry Trees")

This is the oldest thing I have ever reviewed, by far.

Sakura Namiki came out in 1957, long before the Year 24 Group stepped up. (The Year 24 members were all 10 or younger when this was published.) Sakura Namiki's author, Takahashi Makoto, was especially prolific in the 60s. His profile rose again in the 90s-early 2000s, when the Gothic Lolita Bible featured his art on some covers. Sakura Namiki is a perfect example of what yuri was like while it was still incubating in Class S form, before it was really "born" in the 70s.

At Sakura Girls' Institute, located at the top of a sakura-clad hill, walking slowly is pref- whoops, wrong series.

First-year Yukiko and second-year Ayako compete against each other in their school's athletics festival's table tennis competition for the chance to play against their beloved Chikage-oneesama in the finals. (Chikage likes Yukiko more, causing Ayako to hate Yukiko.) Yukiko wins against Ayako, but loses to Chikage. Yukiko's classmates' gossip about whether she threw the final game and Ayako's hyper-clinginess to Chikage after the game both drive a wedge between Yukiko and Chikage.

Yukiko eventually challenges Chikage to a re-match and they resolve their misunderstanding. In the end, they walk home together, as usual, underneath "the golden tops of the cherry trees."

The premise isn't what makes the story memorable so much as the execution: the elegant, old-fashioned art (and the layout, especially in the early pages), the setting (love the historic details), the complete earnestness with which the story is told (the girls' school setting has been played out so much that it's kind of impossible to write a contemporary girls' school story without a knowing wink at the audience; even though I enjoy Sakura Namiki's writing style, it would be a lot harder to pull off today without sounding cheesy or affected), and...well, it makes me feel like listening to Classical music, or attending the ballet again. ^^;

And again, it isn't really canon- but there's so much freaking subtext.

Story: B
Art: Not as refined as Takahashi's later art, but still pretty. B+
Overall: B+

For anyone who has read Sakura Namikithis is what "The Dying Swan" looks like when performed live. The picture quality isn't as good for this video, but it's "The Dying Swan" performed by the ballerina it was originally written for. And this is Schumann's "Träumerei (Reverie)", the song used in the music box scene.

Sakura Namiki can be bought in a bundle, together with Takahashi's Paris ~ Tokyo tankoubon. (It isn't sold individually.)