Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Video Girl Ai
by Jason Thompson, Dec 30th 2010
Episode XXXV: Video Girl Ai
Sitting on the edge of the bed
One million thoughts as I reflect…
Tease me just a little, I'm not hard to persuade
Fully aware for this that I might pay…
Fought the urge to do it—skin to skin
What the hell, here I go—jump right in
—"Jump Right In," The Urge
There is really nothing else in America like shonen love-comedy manga (not counting manga-influenced webcomics and such, of course). Shojo romance manga like The Story of Saiunkoku and Arakure: The Wild Ones aren't too different from English young adult romances, but shonen love-comedies are unlike anything aimed at American teenagers: a strange niche between the PG-13 movies that teenage boys are technically allowed to watch and the straight-up porn that they're actually expected to be watching. You can make a comparison to R-rated sex comedies, but shonen love-comedies generally have a different vibe, both more perverted and more naïve. Are Americans too sex-shy to accept sexually explicit comics for teens, or, like with galge (love simulation games), do we just think the whole idea is too weird?
Maybe the sincerity, the mixture of innocent sincere love with panty shots, is actually what's strangest to American tastes. In American culture, boys are expected to like porn, but not to like romance, and some shonen love stories are pretty serious, even sad. Romance is a "wet" genre, and tormented love mixes surprisingly well with fanservice; plenty of galge and manga have plenty of both, in the words of the ruthless Patrick Macias, a combo of "tear-jerking and jerking off."
By that measure, Masakazu Katsura's Video Girl Ai (1990-1993) is possibly the ultimate emo shonen manga fanservice romance. Yota Moteuchi (known to his classmates as motenai, "dateless," in a pun that no English rewrite could ever successfully translate) is a young, dorky teenager with spiky hair and terrible '80s fashion sense. (The fashion might just be the author's fault.) He has a crush on his sweet classmate Moemi, and his best friend is Takashi, a tall, beautiful bishonen with hair like two wings sweeping back from his temples. Yota is reluctant to tell Moemi how he feels because of bad experiences with love in his past, specifically a time in elementary school when he told a girl he liked her but was rejected. Just when he has almost worked up the courage, Moemi tells him her secret: she likes Takashi, and she just thinks of Yota as a friend.
Yota is crushed, but he doesn't show it. Instead, he encourages Moemi and Takahshi to go out together. Call it cowardice or call it self-sacrifice; his heart is broken, but he knows he can't stand in the way of Moemi's happiness. Alone again, Yota wanders off in the night where he finds a strange video store, Gokuraku ("Paradise"), standing in the middle of the street. But Gokuraku, as it turns out, is a magic video store that can only be seen by the pure of heart. To spend his lonely evening, Yota rents a video called "Ai Amano: I'll Comfort You" with a cute girl on the cover. (Wait a minute…the store for the pure of heart rents adult videos…?) He takes it home and the plays it on his malfunctioning, taped-together VCR (it's set in the '90s, remember) and suddenly, the girl emerges from his TV in flesh and blood and lands unconscious in a heap in his bed.
And surprise, our nerdy hero has a new magical girlfriend! Well, not exactly a girlfriend—when she wakes up, Ai is more like a perky pesty "best female friend" dedicated to helping Yota with his romantic problems with Moemi. And instead of the sweet girl promised on the video box description, she's a tomboy, from her short hair (are the round whorls supposed to resemble the coiled tape of a videotape?) to her habit of jump-kicking Yota and wrestling him to the ground when he bugs her. Of course, she can't resist making fun of his cluelessness either, and there is much teasing and many dirty jokes as the two of them get acquainted. Yota's mother is dead and his father is always away on business, so Ai just moves right into his house and becomes his new roommate. She follows him to school and tries to help him become less of a dork and figure out the right way to put the moves on -- I mean, confess his love to -- Moemi. But there's a problem, because Moemi is going out with Takashi now. And although Ai is programmed not to become emotionally attached to anyone, what are the chances that she and Yota will find themselves falling in love?
The basic plot of Video Girl Ai sounds like about a thousand other shonen love-comedy manga, but the execution is unique. The comedy elements of the first volume soon fade away, and the series becomes a serious, deep romance involving a cast of psychologically damaged characters. It's also notable for its hyper-realistic, obsessively detailed artwork. Masakazu Katsura used to be a much more ordinary-looking '80s shonen artist, but the story is that he had a serious illness after drawing his first manga Wingman (a superhero/sentai manga) and his art took a quantum leap while he recovered. He developed a detailed, photo-assisted style with lots of screentone, which is even more polished in his later series I"s, DNA2 and Zetman. He also started lavishing exquisite care on his drawings of girls' butts. Panty shots, tight blue jeans, stockings—"draw what you love," they say, and it's pretty obvious where Masakazu Katsura's tastes lie. It's hard to think of another manga artist who focuses so much on one part of the anatomy (Satoshi Urushihara, maybe?). His faces are, frankly, not as individualistic as the butts, making it difficult to tell the girls from one another when their hair changes, but they're cute. He also draws decent action scenes—more on that later—and the graphic novel covers are pleasantly inspired by Alphonse Mucha, the early-1900s Art Nouveau "good girl artist.'
But what separates Video Girl Ai from its shonen love-comedy brethren is not just its detailed artwork but its detailed, obsessive focus on the characters' emotions, thoughts and self-doubt. Some people distinguish between "masculine" and "feminine" writing styles on the basis that "masculine" writing styles focus on describing action and the external senses, while "feminine" writing styles focus on the characters' internal thoughts. By that definition, Video Girl Ai is a very "feminine" story, despite its constant drawings of girls' panties. Katsura is trying to write a serious story, really trying to get us inside the head of all the characters—Yota, Ai, Moemi, just about everyone except the inscrutable Takashi, who is always sort of aloof, mat ure and puzzlingly asexual. (I think Katsura's attitude is, who cares what handsome popular guys think?) Perhaps as a result, the series has many female fans: "This was one of the series that made me realized that shonen could be girly too," wrote Connie on Slightly Biased Manga. To other people, all the self-pity and self-denial is a little too much; in Adam Warren's The Dirty Pair: Fatal but not Serious a Yota look-alike gets called a "sensitive wankerboy." But like it or hate it, Ai is many shades different from the standard crappy shonen romance. It's a tiny bit like Chobits, which also involves a robot girl and her quest to become human, although Ai is not really a robot and her ability to feel is never in doubt. Everyone in this manga has feelings, and their feelings are focused on one another, on love, and on the epic world-shattering importance of losing their virginity with the right person.
For 13 volumes (15 if you count the side story in the last two volumes) Video Girl Ai maintains the most excruciating romantic tension between its three core characters. Instead of introducing new characters in every volume when things get slow, it keeps the cast pretty tight—it's almost claustrophobic—and focuses on the core dynamic of Yota, Ai and Moemi. The characters aren't totally clueless; they don't completely miss one another's signals and do stupid things (well, most of the time they don't); and they don't often start making out only to be distracted by a fire alarm going off or something. (Although they do have to contend with the strange rules of the Video World, which cause Ai to suffer electric shocks and worse when she goes against her programming.) Video Girl Ai's good point is that it doesn't need too many new characters or dumb complications to tell its story. The drama of the story isn't in accidents and misunderstandings and magic; it's in characters' hearts and minds, and in their many conversations and delicate moments together, in darkened movie theaters, in empty classrooms after school is out, in cafés late at night, in bed.
Yota, the main character, is possibly a self-insertion of Masakazu Katsura. Like Katsura, he's an artist, and in addition to trying to find love he's also trying to develop his skills and get a career. (In one sequence, he has to work hard to meet a deadline, and Ai brings him tea while he draws in his studio.) Do I detect a note of self-loathing or jealousy in the character of Yota's classmate Takao, a horny young artist with better social skills than our hero, who boasts about how female nudes are the ideal form of art but who really just wants to get it on with lots of women? Takao, who's actually got the guts to ask Ai out on a date and make a move on her, is presented as a sleazy asshole, in contrast to Yota, who is so gentlemanly he just stands there and lets it happen. But Yota also has an angry side, the rage within the nerd. Katsura is a big fan of Batman—Batman makes a few cameos in Video Girl Ai—and there's a bit of superheroic alter egos in the way that Yota keeps his dark side suppressed, trying to be nice and cheerful, while secretly brooding deep down.
Ai herself is sort of a weird creation. She has short hair and a flat chest, talks with the butch Japanese pronoun ore (in the English edition, they try to replicate this with macho slang), teases and wrestles with Yota, and (horror of horrors) can't cook. In Video Girl, the one-shot story in Vol. 15 which was the prototype for Ai, her boyishness is even more explicit; she's formed when the malfunctioning VCR starts switching signals between Ai's tape and a picture of a guy on another channel. (In one very early gag scene, when Yota complains that she's boyish, she replies "It's all your fault for playing my video on a broken VCR! And…OH MY GOD! I thought it was just my voice that was boyish, but now I'M GROWING A PENIS!" "What? No way!" Yota cries. "It's true, feel it!" Ai says, and then Yota puts his hand between her legs and…well…just guess what happens.)
But Ai's boyishness, far from being a negative, is really one of her good qualities; she's less threatening than a "prim and proper lady" would be, because she acts like one of the dudes. Later she gets a bit more feminine, but she's always a tomboy. (As Ai becomes less boyish, Katsura introduces another tomboy to take that role, Natsumi, a tsundere homeless punk girl who beats up guys and camps out in Yota's backyard, but she's ultimately the least important of the female characters.) It's also mentioned at one point that since Ai is a Vi>deo Girl, she doesn't have a period. She's Yota's playmate, best friend and a shoulder to cry on (so much crying!). It must suck for her to have to listen to Yota talk about Moemi all the time, but like Yota himself, she's self-sacrificing, so she doesn't mind…too much. At one point in the series, Ai's memories are erased, and she comes back with false memories that she is Yota's sister. But pretty soon she realizes that this isn't the case, and the real memories come flooding back, making things increasingly awkward between them.
Video Girl Ai is at its best when it shows the anxiety and pain of young love. Often this pain is literal, as in Volume 3, when Ai is imprisoned in the Video World and Yota must go into that world to save her, climbing a splintering glass staircase that slashes him with every step. (The same metaphor for love was used in Hans Christian Andersen's original The Little Mermaid: "At every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow…" As in Genkaku Picasso, it'd be better if Katsura didn't literally come out and say "this glass staircase represents the pain of love," but, well, it's shonen manga.) In other scenes, Yota is tied by bondage-esque coils of electric cables and shocked; beaten bloody by punks in an alley; and scorched by electric blasts. Ai also suffers a lot of torment; mostly she just has her clothes torn off by electric shocks as her VCR malfunctions, but she also gets tied up in a video-cable crucifix, watches her body fade into nothingness when Yota is at risk of forgetting her, and in one symbolic scene, her tortured body cracks open like an egg and she emerges naked, stripped bare by her pain.
In a shonen battle manga, you have to bleed to win; in Video Girl Ai, you have to bleed to love. But this pain is most believable when it's something you have to deal with alone; it's less believable when there's some Big Bad responsible for screwing with your love life, although it'd be nice if things were that simple. The Big Bad in Video Girl Ai is Rolex, Ai's creator, one of the masters of the Video World, a cold heartless bishonen who resents Ai's ability to feel true love and keeps trying to erase her. Rolex keeps showing up to interfere in Ai's life, and he also sends his servant, Vid>eo Girl Mai, a sort of evil Vi>deo Girl whose mission is to kill Ai and take her back to the video store. For a volume or two, Mai and Ai and Yota fight and fight and fight, kicking and punching and head-slamming, and the series turns into more of an action-superhero manga than a romance manga. The action's not bad, but it's a distraction from the psychological twists which make Ai so good. And yet, you can tell Katsura loves drawing it; in between his romance manga Katsura has repeatedly gone back to drawing superhero stories like Wingman, Shadow Lady and his current manga, Zetman. Let's face it: Katsura really just wants to draw superhero comics, not romance comics. Video Girl Ai fans will just have to be grateful that he restrained his urge to draw mindless ass-kicking (as opposed to long conversations and ass shots) for so long.
There is one other way in which Ai is a bit like a superhero comic; like many superhero comics, it's a story about growing from adolescence to adulthood, and dealing with emotional responsibilities. In an old interview with Viz, Katsura said he wasn't particularly interested in depicting the process of shonen maturation ("boys becoming men" and all that), but Yota does develop dramatically as the series goes on, from the skinny, apparently five-foot-four goofball of the early chapters to the tall, built, sensitive dude of the later volumes. Yota doesn't just have new girls hit on him for no reason; he becomes cooler, so that it's semi-believable that in volume 3, Nozomu, an underclasswoman with a crush on him, starts hitting on him. Later, in volume 7, Moemi is cornered in the band room after school by a couple of would-be teenage rapists, and although Yota rushes to the rescue, the experience leaves her scarred.
The way that sexual assault is used here as an opportunity for the male hero to come to the rescue feels cheap and manipulative (Katsura does the same thing in DNA2 and I"s), but it's really just a setup for one of the weirdest and most memorable parts of the series. Not too long after the assault, Moemi realizes that Yota likes her and they start sort-of-going-out, but Yota senses that Moemi is still shocked by her experiences and he doesn't want to take advantage of her when she's in a vulnerable state. Sensing Yota pulling away from her, Moemi keeps hitting on him, sexually teasing him to the point of frustration, while Yota tries not to sleep with her, knowing it would just destroy their friendship. (Besides, Yota's starting to fall in love with someone else at this point anyway.) Trying not to sleep with someone who's throwing themselves at you, because you know it'll just make things more screwed up—now that's realism! Really. It gets weirder. At one point, Moemi stays over at Yota's house, and Yota is so nervous having her around that he considers masturbating while she's out of the room, just to take the pressure off. (Incidentally, this, together with all the other masturbation talk in Video Girl Ai, was really shocking to me when I first read it, since I had grown up on the idea that masturbation was a sin.)
They sleep together—in the same bed, that is, but not having sex. But being so close together is almost too much, and in the middle of the night they start to touch and kiss, and things almost go too far. In an internal monologue, Yota thinks of his penis as "the monster" which he doesn't want to unleash, and we actually see a drawing of some creature that looks like a cross between Rodan, Gamera and a phallus. In one incredible scene, Yota just can't take it anymore, and the scene shifts to Moemi's perspective. Yota's face is in shadow, and he becomes a scary threatening figure as he silently advances on Moemi, intending…what? "Nooooo!" Yota's internal voice thinks, as his mind and conscience try to stop his body from doing "what it wants." Finally, he manages to stop himself.
If Video Girl Ai is partially a manga about growing up, then sex is the true measure of adulthood. But it's not an easy path; in Katsura's world, it's like there's no middle ground between being a dweeby young virgin, a "nice guy," and being a criminal rapist sex maniac asshole—or at least, the path between these two is so narrow it's a heroic effort to walk it. I can think of a couple of things wrong with this attitude—I'm tired of hearing about the supposed torment of "nice guys"—but regardless of how crazy these feelings may be, what's so great about Video Girl Ai is how it captures this brew of sexual tension and guilt, self-hatred and lust. It goes places no other shonen manga does, not even I"s, Katsura's other big romance manga, whose characters are a little more normal and their problems of the heart less tortured. In Ai, the characters' love life is everything; life and death and identity all hinge upon who kisses who and who has sex with who. Of course, since it's a shonen manga, not a seinen manga, you can be pretty sure the characters won't have sex onscreen, but it gets pretty close. The anime series, produced while the manga was still running, has a different ending from the manga, but it's somehow satisfying in its weird symbolic way. Oddly, it reminded me of the twisted/bittersweet ending of David Lynch's Eraserhead, in which the world turns to white as the couple holds each other in their arms.
Video Girl Ai's explicit artwork caused it to be censored even in Japan; it was one of several manga targeted as "harmful to youth" in the censorship paranoia following the 1989 Tsutomu Miyazaki killings, and several minor changes were made, although the series is still chock-a-block with fanservice. (The Viz edition uses the censored versions, since the uncensored versions are out-of-print and unavailable in Japan and Shueisha probably didn't even keep the film.) Of course, with Bill 156, the strict new Japanese censorship law passed in December 2010 aimed specifically at sexual material for minors, there may not be much of a shonen romance genre for much longer. As if they already sensed the way the wind was blowing, Shonen Jump seems to have updated its content guidelines to stop allowing so much nudity; more recent love-coms such as To Love-Ru and Rosario + Vampire aren't nearly as explicit as Ai, and most other shonen magazines have also cut back on the sleazy content. Perhaps publishers feel it's pointless to put fanservice in shonen manga in the Internet Age, since (1) parents and censors will object and (2) real porn is always just a mouse-click away if people want it. Video Girl Ai captures a time when shonen manga could be simultaneously sleazy and sincere (as opposed to PG-13 and snarky), and it gives us a look inside the head of Masakazu Katsura, who, in just this one manga, captured the feelings of "nice guys" and nice girls and tormented virgins possibly better than he himself realized.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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