Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Chikyu Misakiby Jason Thompson, May 19th 2011
Episode LII: Chikyu Misaki
52 episodes: a year's worth of "House of 1000 Manga"! How time passes. You can almost feel the mono no aware. Time to relax, take it easy in the garden, put on my monocle, have a cup of tea like the stereotypical "Sebastian the butler" character and dig up some old graphic novels out of the basement for my day's reading. (Then again, that's what I do every week. It's like "Masterpiece Theater" over here.)
And the first graphic novels I dig up are Chikyu Misaki, one of the best, most original little three-volume manga series I've ever read. Chikyu Misaki ("Earthling Misaki") is the story of the friendship between a little girl and a shapeshifting sea serpent, or technically, a lake monster. Misaki, the heroine, moves with her dad to the small town of Hohoro, a little town on the edge of a lake. It's winter, and snow is falling all around. They move into a creaky old mansion owned by her dead grandfather, a famous paleontologist, whose home has become a sort of town museum filled with mounted animal skeletons and bric-a-brac. While Misaki's dad flirts with Aoi, the cute thirtysomething lawyer in charge of the estate, Misaki explores the property and comes to the snowy shore of a deep, dark lake. She then remembers: the whole town is famous for the legendary lake monster, Hohopo! There's a big Hohopo sign on the road leading to town, there are Hohopo dolls in the shops, and everyone knows he's there, even if nobody has seen him.
Misaki sees him. She's hanging out by the lake one day with her first friend from school, shy megane-moe Sanae, when a creature emerges from the water. The mysterious monster, it turns out, isn't a fearsome fish, lizard or amphibian, but an inquisitive, friendly little creature like a cross between a long-faced dog and a baby plesiosaur. It's even covered in soft fur! Hohopo is so friendly it kisses Sanae on the lips—and in a flash, it transforms from a cute monster to an even cuter little naked boy, who shivers in the frigid lake water. Sanae and Misaki are so shocked that they take the little boy to Misaki's house, warm him up under some blankets, and give him the name "Neo" (because The Matrix is on TV). Misaki's dad is a little suspicious of this mysterious boy who can't talk, can't put on his own clothes, and keeps wetting himself, but damn, he is SOOOO CUTE! When he gets in water, he turns back into an animal, but when he kisses someone he turns into a human being.
Have they discovered some kind of mysterious ancient amphibian? And how could Hohopo, who looks like he's only ten years old, be millions of years old? As Misaki and Sanae are trying to figure the answers to these questions, meanwhile, across town, plot thread #2 is brewing. Tokuko, the cool teenage heiress of a tremendously wealthy family, has been kidnapped and held for ransom by a couple of crooks. The mastermind of the kidnappers, Reiko, gained Tokuko's confidence by posing as her piano teacher, and when Tokuko realizes that she was betrayed, her prim and proper little heart fills with anger. Meanwhile, Reiko and the other crooks escape with their gold bullion in a little getaway plane, but the Cessna flies right into a blizzard and starts to crash. Reiko jumps out of the plane, abandoning her buddies and taking the gold bullion along with her, but she falls into the freezing cold lake and the gold sinks to the bottom. Seconds later, everyone in Misaki's house is startled when a plane suddenly crash-lands on their property! Our heroes rush out to put out the fire and find one pilot dead, one injured, and even more mysteries. Meanwhile, the conniving Reiko nearly dies in the icy lake…until something gives her a lift and takes her to shore.
Now, all of a sudden, everyone wants to know what's in the lake: a sexy female thief, an angry little rich girl, and of course, Misaki and her buddies. Reiko, lying unconscious on the lakeshore, is discovered and taken in by Fuyuhiko, a silent loner who lives on the other side of the lake with his scary dog, his sideburns and his chainsaw. An army of detectives, criminals, and scientists converge on the lake, but Misaki and Sanae, blissfully unaware of this, spend most of their time teaching Neo how to act human (in a startling violation of manga clichés, he doesn't follow them to school) and sleeping together with him in the same bed in one big snuggle-pile. What is the secret of Neo? Who is Fuyuhiko, and why does he look exactly like Marvel Comics' Wolverine? Who is the mysterious hitman who is hunting the criminals who kidnapped Tokuko? Why do the water pipes in the old house never freeze up if it's such a harsh winter?
Chikyu Misaki juggles these plot threads well. It's part mystery, part science fiction, part comedy, part cute animals, and part steamy bath scenes with teenage girls and long-necked, frisky water monsters. (But like Carl Horn once said, the bath scenes are just to show that the manga is clean, so put away your dirty thoughts.) It's more or less suitable for younger teens, although there's just a tiny dash of yuri crushes and some shota-moe in the person of the adorable Neo. Really, considering how many sleepovers and bath scenes there are, it's amazing how little fanservice there is, so if your parent or schoolteacher is offended by this manga, tell them to suck it. (Excuse me, let me get back to the Sebastian-the-butler persona. I meant, tell them to "look at it in context.")
The closest comparison I can think of for this sweet little story is, in fact, not an anime or manga, but American family movies. Chikyu Misaki reminds me of stories like Lilo and Stitch, The Iron Giant and The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep where the lonely hero (sometimes lonely because they just moved to a new town, like Misaki) makes friends with a loveable monster. There are other references to Western movies throughout the manga, too; in addition to The Matrix and Wolverine, the kids watch Babe to cheer up on a snowy day. Since Fuyuhiko literally has "WOLVERINE" written on his chainsaw, it's safe to say that Iwahara is a fan. Maybe it's for this reason that Iwahara was one of the artists lined up to work on Marvel Comics' manga-influenced Tsunami comics line back in 2003, no doubt recruited by Marvel's resident manga fan C.B. Cebulski. Unfortunately, the Tsunami line flopped and I don't think Iwahara's announced Marvel comic, Quest, ever saw print.
Iwahara's artwork is amazing. Let me capitalize that: AMAZING. He can draw just about anything, from super-cute faces to the fine details of the setting: the snow-covered forest, the blue jays eating berries in the trees, the squirrels. In some mangaka's work the backgrounds look extremely different from the foregrounds, a sign that assistants drew the backgrounds, but in Iwahara everything looks like the work of the same hand. He also uses a lot of high-contrast black and white; almost the only screentone in the manga is Misaki's red hair. I could spend hours looking at any page of an Iwahara comic. Would any mangaka call this a bad thing? (No, seriously, people say you're meant to read manga quickly, so you could call this a bad thing, but it's a good thing in my book.)
But if just the art was good, that wouldn't be enough for me to like Chikyu Misaki this much. It's also a nice, satisfying little tale which tells the story it sets out to tell and never seems to run off the rails like many manga. There's action and mystery and romance (most of it is inappropriate romance by American YA novel standards, but don't worry, it's PG-13). There's cute animals, like in every Iwahara manga, and there's sympathetic characters who you want to see end up happy. And there are dramatic last-volume revelations and an evil villain whose scheme is much more evil than just selling Hohopo to the zoo. The villain isn't really the point, though; in fact, one of the reasons I like Chikyu Misaki more than Iwahara's other translated manga, King of Thorn and Cat Paradise, is that although those manga are just as well-drawn and tightly plotted, they both end in a fight with a Big Bad who threatens the heroes and shouts "mwa ha ha!". (In one scene in Chikyu Misaki the villain laughs maniacally, then apologizes "Sorry, I got a little carried away there.") Chikyu Misaki has its good guys and bad guys, but the fact that it ISN'T about the Ultimate Battle Between Good and Evil is refreshing. It's just about friends and family and pets, and getting under warm blankets on a cold winter's night. It's a magical little manga, and it deserves to be made into a Disney movie. If I was Iwahara, I'd even let them take out the toilet-training scenes, but the snuggling scenes have to stay.
RETURN OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION: I'm having two launch parties for King of RPGs volume 2 (www.kingofrpgs.com), which is coming out at the end of this month! If you're in Seattle or the San Francisco Bay Area, stop by these events for gaming, snacks, drinks and general nerdage!
THURSDAY, MAY 26
Green Lake Games, Seattle, WA (http://www.facebook.com/greenlakegames)
I'll be there to sign the first copies of King of RPGs volume 2 (hitting stores on May 24) and talk about making the book. Plus, snacks, drinks, open gaming at Seattle's best game store, and at 8 PM, I'll be running MAID: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME (http://www.maid-rpg.com), the first ever translated Japanese tabletop roleplaying game!
Facebook Event Page: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=161568003907697
SATURDAY, JUNE 4
Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco, CA (http://cartoonart.org/)
Victor Hao (www.victorhao.com), the artist of King of RPGs, and I will talk about making King of RPGs, and sign copies of the books for everybody! We'll chat about what it takes to make a graphic novel and how we got published. Plus snacks, drinks, and Special Gaming Guest: Ewen Cluney, the translator of MAID: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME, will be running a game at the party!
Facebook Event Page: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=190841424295505
Come on by for twenty-sided dice, general mayhem and a chance to meet me, the author! And to play a maid because you know you want to. Maid uniforms not required.
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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