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About the contributors:
Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.
With Honey & Clover coming out in September, and the first 12 episodes available for streaming on Hulu, we decided to chat about the series. Afterward, join us in the forum to further the discussion!
Bamboo: Welcome to another edition of Chicks on Anime. Typically in the past, we've kept our discussions to various issues and topics relating to fandom or anime and manga, but today, we'd like to do something a little bit different and spend some time talking about one series. Soon to be released on DVD, Honey & Clover tells the delightful story about a gaggle of kids at an art school. Currently, the series can also be seen on Hulu.
Sara, I remember you being quite fond of the anime when it came out. I take it you can relate to some of the events?
|Sara: Sure. I loved the anime series when it first came out, though. I was first drawn to it because I heard it had a Jan Svankmajer-inspired opening credits sequence, and as an animation student at the time, it sounded too cool not to check out. I watched the first episode and was immediately hooked. Honey & Clover is one of those series I bonded immediately with because it resembled my life so closely. I could relate to just about everything, from the all-nighters before finals, to the subtle hint of competition in the air to the overall weirdness of art students. Even now, I still like to go back and watch the first season, which is my personal favorite, every now and again, because it makes me feel so nostalgic about the whole art school experience.|
|Bamboo: Casey, you've read the manga, right? What did you think?|
|Casey: Yes, I've read the manga. I first heard about Honey & Clover the year it won the Kodansha Manga Award. I was in college, for the record. I tried buying what was available of the series from Japan, but since it had just won the award, there was a run on copies, and I could only get one random volume. I think it was volume three. I read it and wasn't incredibly wowed, but I didn't have any strong feelings either way. It wasn't until the English language release that I came back to it. The second time around, perhaps because my personality had changed over the years, I was majorly irritated. The quirky art school atmosphere and most of the characters are fine. It's just Hagu, and the way that all of the boys just seem to swarm over her, that goes a long way toward ruining the experience for me.|
Bamboo: I don't hate Hagu, but I wasn't entirely thrilled with the character either. Though before we start talking about her, I want to chime in with my thoughts. I find the series to be incredibly charming. There's a surrealness and warmth to the anime that I really enjoy—moreso than the manga, really—and I find the lackadaisical pace and the complex characters to be really enjoyable to watch. I never went to art school, of course, but it did almost make me miss the days of staying up in the computer lab with all my classmates, scrambling to finish various reports for this and that. It has that kind of atmosphere. It's a very genial story that comes with a lot of heart. But yeah... Hagu. Eh.
I remember reading one of your reviews of Honey & Clover. I recall very clearly that you were not terribly thrilled with her character, and the readers weren't terribly thrilled with your assessment either. So if I may be blunt—why the Hagu hate?
Casey: Well, I just don't get the rationale, for starters. This is not a seinen manga, so putting a moe character who hardly ever strings more words than three at a time together doesn't suit even fanservice purposes. Vulnerable, fragile eighteen year olds who look like they're ten years old are not exactly stock characters of josei, or even shoujo, manga, and I don't find her a particularly convincing character.
Also, the way that Morita pursues her is just ugly. I get it—he's a borderline sociopath—but his exploitation of her is played for laughs again and again...and I don't think, in real life, that this sort of thing is funny. Given that the manga is going for a slice-of-life atmosphere otherwise, I think harassment for grins is inappropriate. Nor do I find the way that this relation—I won't deign to call it "relationship"—is resolved helps matters any.
Since Honey & Clover is an award winner, and the Kodansha Award is arguably the most prestigious of the publisher awards for manga, I think we should judge Chika Umino and her work by a relatively high standard. And in my opinion she just doesn't meet it when it comes to Hagu. The character is a creative cop out.
Sara: I'm going to stick my neck out here and admit that I'm actually not bothered by Hagu. Her personality has a very nuanced and realistic portrayal. I can definitely identify with her as someone who is naturally shy and quiet. I can understand where you both are coming from in terms of criticizing her design and appearance, but she doesn't strike me as a fetish-y character. She doesn't have those standard moe traits that you see so often in fan-pandering series: she's a terrible cook, for instance, not terribly interested in competing for mens' attention, and is very career-oriented. The main focus of her life is her work as an artist, and it's her major character motivation. I think the fact that two guys immediately fall for her is irritating, but that's not really the fault of Hagu herself. I see it almost as a commentary about what men seek at first glance in a partner.
Hagu's timidness—well, aside from her design—is definitely the most "moe" thing about her, but it becomes clear fairly early on that it is an affect of psychological damage and a vice she has to fix, not a virtue to be fetishized. In one of my favorite episodes she flips her shit because Shuuji, who serves as kind of her emotional backbone, is leaving for China, and I definitely got a "Wow... you have some serious issues you need to work out" vibe, rather than "Oh, how charming!" and her character just sort of clicked for me after that. Morita and Takemoto definitely put her on a pedestal at the beginning, but I think that fades pretty quickly.
|Bamboo: I have to skirt the line between both of you and say that what bothers me about Hagu is not her moe looks, but the way other characters respond to her. I can't fathom why she, of all people, would illicit an immediate "I want to be with her!" response. Over time, perhaps, as people got to know her. But right away? My first impression of her is a meek and rather boring person. It's certainly not enough to fall for her in 2 seconds.|
Casey: First of all, let me just say that can be hard to make coherent comparisons between the anime and the manga because the respective creative emphases necessarily differ. I never found Hagu to be a well-developed character in the manga, for example. Umino even draws her with weaker, thinner lines than she draws other characters. But yes, there is a sense that Hagu is the "perfect woman" of the piece in the manga, the one that all the guys go for. Is this really the sort of message that a woman writing for other women should be sending? This question may be posed on so many different levels. Is it true? Do Japanese women think it's true? Is this an implicit advocacy of being Hagu-like to attract men?
No matter which way I look at it, I don't like where that line of thought goes. And incidentally, other female characters, such as Ayumi, are at once less idealized, less attractive, and therefore perhaps more, well, human in their characterization.
|Bamboo: I'm not terribly familiar with Umino's personal life. Could Hagu be a Mary Sue of sorts? Or maybe she thinks that a vast majority of her readers would be able to identify with that character. So rather than saying, "You must be like Hagu to nab men," she could be saying, "Are you like Hagu? Don't worry. People will understand you and like you for who you are."|
|Casey: I have no clue what Umino is like as a person. All I really know about her biography is that she used to do doujinshi. But I do not find the "Don't worry if you're like Hagu because Hagu-like people are people too" type explanation for the character because, at least in the manga, the story is hardly ever told from Hagu's point of view. The viewpoints do change to some degree, but nearly all of the time she is the object of somebody else's story. If the story were told from her perspective, and not from a boy who falls head over heels for her, I'd probably be much less critical of the character.|
|Sara: I think it's worth mentioning, though, that while Hagu does reciprocate some feelings, her relationships with the other characters always seems secondary to her love for creating art, and that's what I think is admirable about her. Hagu herself, like I said, doesn't bother me at all. It's the way that Morita torments her that grates on me a little. I agree with Casey on this point. I suspect the anime may have altered the storytelling of the manga a bit, because I can recall several times when it felt like the story was being presented from Hagu's point of view. Perhaps this is why I am more akin to identifying with her?|
|Bamboo: I guess I don't really buy her as the "This is the ideal woman" angle, because the manga was written for females. Why put that in there, given the target audience?|
|Casey: I think it's a creative cop-out, plain and simple. The manga needed a mascot!|
|Sara: Honestly, I think Umino probably likes drawing cute characters. I think we should also remember that H&C features an ensemble cast, so there are lots of storylines that don't feature Hagu at all. Ayumi is a great character, and definitely the one I latch onto as the one I identify with the most.|
|Casey: Indeed. I got the feeling, reading the manga, that the Ayumi character developed due to a growing need in the series for an empathetic female character.|
|Sara: She's definitely the most empathetic, and the most human.|
|Bamboo: Do you think the series would have been just as good without Hagu? If they had taken her out entirely, or replaced her with someone who still fulfilled the role of passive art lover?|
|Sara: I like Hagu, and I like the development of her character, personally. I don't know how a replacement "passive art lover" would fit in. That's kind of a weird phrase. What would be more interesting to me would be to see what a story featuring Hagu and a bunch of guys who don't immediately fall in love with her would be like.|
|Bamboo: That's what makes me wonder if there's a bit of self-projection. Or even, "I think my readers want love and drama asap. Let's get this done right now." If that's the case, it's interesting to think about, as a writer or artist, what you think the readers would like the most. I mean, I'd love to assume that everyone creates manga for the sheer joy of it, but I imagine there's an aspect of marketability that everyone takes into consideration. "Will my editor like this better if I do this?" and what not.|
|Sara: Maybe Umino's editor is just some horny dude who was all like "Make her smaller! SMALLER!"|
|Bamboo: That would be great. I see him already as a sweaty dude who's always mopping his brow with a danky old towel. "She's too old!!!!!"|
|Sara: "Must be shorter... Waist height at the tallest..."|
|Casey: Very funny. But characters like Hagu are not the norm in josei manga, so I'm not sure if the lecherous editor theory holds water. Otherwise, you'd see her more often. Which bring me back to my "This manga needs a mascot!" theory...|
|Sara: I'm sticking with my "manga artists sometimes just want to draw cute girls" theory. I know when I did a guest stint at the Nina comics last year I loved drawing the moe version of Nina.|
|Bamboo: There are some interviews with Umino online, but they're all in Japanese. Maybe one of our readers can shed light on what treasures they contain.|
|Sara: The Epic Debate of Hagu aside, I really want to reiterate my love for this series. The characters are appropriately quirky and entertaining, and I think there's something in the tone of the series that speaks to a bit of nostalgia in everyone. I think people should check it out.|
|Casey: Well, Hagu aside, it is intensely atmospheric. You'll learn a lot about Japanese art colleges and unglamorous everyday life in Japan, both from the storyline itself and the impressive amount of visual detail. It's a great place to start if you're interested in a manga that is unequivocally "un-Western."|