Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Episode IC: Pretty Face
"Only 20 minutes left before I become the biggest pervert in the history of Japan!"
—Pretty Face vol. 1
Before the accident, Masashi Rando was the champion of the karate team, the baddest guy in school. But beneath his fearless, ass-kicking surface, he just wanted to have the courage to ask out the girl he loves, Rina Kurimi. But no! Never! he thought. There's no way she could ever like a lowlife hooligan like me!! While he's thinking this, the school bus plunges off a cliff and burst into flames, with Rando inside it. And then…darkness.
Some time later, Rando wakes up in the hospital. Where is he? What's going on? Dr. Manabe, the plastic surgeon, explains that Rando was horribly disfigured in the crash. In fact, he was so badly mutilated that even his parents didn't recognize him, and they mistook him for another passenger who died. Luckily, Manabe has spent the whole year fixing him in his freelance clinic, and now he's no longer a hideous mass of scar tissue. Except that, since Manabe didn't know what he looked like, he's reconstructed his face to look like…THE PHOTO OF RINA THAT WAS IN HIS WALLET!
Yes: Rando now looks exactly like the girl he loves! He's even hotter than Andrej Pejic! Confused and shocked, Rando puts on some clothes (women's clothes, for whatever reason, but run with it) and frantically runs over to his parents' house, only to find that, heartbroken by the loss of their son, they have left town leaving no forwarding address. As he's wondering what to do, Rina herself suddenly appears, sees him…and mistakes him for her long-lost twin sister, Yuna! Before he can say it's all a mistake, he's re-adopted by her whole family, who are so happy to find their daughter again, even if (s)he has amnesia.
At first, Rando is too uncomfortable at the thought of sharing a house with Rina, and he wants to just get the hell out of there. But then, as he gets closer to her, he realizes that she really depends on her older twin sister. How could he disappoint her by taking Yuna away for the second time?? Thus, he vows to stick around to support Rina, to protect her from bullies, to give her loving, sisterly support. All he has to do is (1) find the real Yuna, (2) swap places with her without Rina knowing, and (3) gather the 50,000,000¥ he needs to pay for the operation to get his face back! Meanwhile, he gets to go back to high school and start his life over as Rina's twin sister, getting another chance to do high school the RIGHT way, as a hot girl instead of a bully. (Although he's always slipping up and acting like a bully by accident.) PRETTY FACE: A STORY OF REDEMPTION!
Yasuhiro Kano's Pretty Face is my favorite Weekly Shonen Jump school comedy manga ever. This tale of crossdressing sister-fetishism and penis jokes (my favorite is the story about the scarf in volume 5) is so pervy that it's almost a miracle it was published in Shonen Jump instead of a more adult magazine. In fact, according to Japanese wikipedia, it was censored a bit even in the Japanese edition (although there were lots of loopholes: apparently it's OK to show naked breasts in Jump if they're actually not real breasts but plastic breastforms). Kano is basically a cute-girl artist, but there's a sarcastic energy to Pretty Face that makes it more fun than a straightforward fansservice manga, and there's a kinkiness that stand above MxO and Kagami no Kuni no Harisugawa and his other manga that are also full of barely clothed female flesh (or in the case of Pretty Face, male flesh). This manga is full of lovingly drawn almost-pantyshots of a character that the presumed-to-be-hetero-male reader knows is actually a guy. But hey—being a girl, liking girls, it's all cool, Shonen Jump readers. The line gets blurry sometimes.
The comedy parts of the series are basically about Rando's life as a girl, and trying to keep his gender secret so Rina won't get disgusted and think he's some kind of crazy stalker. On the outside, he looks pretty female; he can wear a padded bra for breasts, and after a full year in a coma, he's lost a lot of muscle definition, so he has slender, womanly arms and legs. But still, there are constant challenges: the trip to the beach, the trip to the hot springs, the school medical examination! Time and again, Rando ends up buried beneath a squirming pile of girls, or his pants almost come off, exposing his fleshy embarrassment! Dr. Manabe helps out Rando by providing him with various fake breasts and clothes to help him pass better, but Manabe's motives are questionable, since he's in love with his work, and he'd like Rando to just transition and become a full transsexual. ("What about our dream? Your transformation into a real girl is almost complete!") A running joke in the series involves Manabe trying to get Rando's consent to do the operation, or just to trick him into it, and Rando usually beating him up.
There's lots of beating-up scenes in this manga, because even as a girl (and despite losing all his muscle definition and being only about 5'4" tall), Rando is still the toughest guy in school. This is the second major element of the manga: scenes of Rando beating up jerky guys, whether it's the judo team, the karate team, a whole crowd of gang members, a bodybuilder, a perverted teacher, some sexually harrassing creeps, whoever. When he gets mad, Rando is a fiery inferno in a human body, a demonic hell-breast—I mean beast—of vengeance!! He's always coming to the rescue of others, whether it's saving Rina from being raped (warning: there is a bit too much casual-threat-of-bad-guys-raping-people in this manga) or saving the three incompetent members of the karate club, his eternal flunkies, from getting their butts kicked. Frankly, these fight scenes are my least favorite parts of the series, since there is no real suspense; the villains are all two-dimensional and Rando never has any trouble beating them up. But if the Shonen Jump editors approved these parts, there must be a reason for them, and my guess that readers liked the satisfaction of watching a thin, frail-looking girl use the word "ore" and beat up huge, annoying, brawny guys. (Of course, he's not really a girl, so actually it's not at all a girl-power story, but…) In one of his omake, Kano talks about how a little girl came up to him at Jump Festa with her mother and told him she loved Pretty Face and got his autograph. I'd bet (hope?) she liked it for the beating-up scenes more than the penis jokes. "It was interesting to see how different people can read the same story and get completely different things out of it," Kano writes in his author's notes.
Like Midori Days, there aren't many long story arcs; most of the stories are just one chapter long. After Manabe, Rina and Rando, most of the characters have just one or two traits, but since it's a gag manga, that's all they need. There's Rina's three friends Keiko (the butch sporty girl), Midori (the big-breasted girl) and Yukie (the 'mature' girl, except when she's short-tempered). Miwa, the 23-year-old teacher, is the sexy-older-woman type. Nozomi, a lesbian girl (cue yuri jokes), shows up in volume 3 and starts hitting on Rando, whose combination of macho strength and womanly looks makes her knees go weak. Volume 4 introduces Natsuo, a tomboy who used to be Rando's martial arts pupil, and who's always doing high kicks wearing a short skirt. (Author's note on Natsuo: "From the start, she's functioned as a panties character, but she's really proud of her ample breasts.") Except for Natsuo, most of the side characters don't have much to do except kinda hang out in the background while Rando has nosebleeds and struggles to keep his clothes on.
One thing I like about this series is its willingness to go into the creepy areas. Kano has said that he likes dark stories, and you can see that in the alternate endings in the omake in volume 6 (too bad he didn't use them instead of the actual ending, which is sorta weak). The idea that his parents think he's dead and have moved away is pretty sad if you think about it, although the Jump editors vetoed Kano's original idea that Rina's sister Yuna had been kidnapped, instead of running away from home like she did in the final version of the manga. For that matter, the whole premise —a guy gets plastic surgery to look like a girl's twin sister—is oddly similar to the 1970s Fritz Leiber horror story "Dark Wings", except that in that story, the guy really is a stalker, and things don't end well. It's interesting that Kano (whose stories usually involve magic) grounds the series in "real" medical sex change operations, instead of the usual manga devices like magical hot springs, aliens giving you a sex change, etc. In the original draft, there were even more specific trannsexual references: Manabe removed Rando's body hair with electrolysis, and one chapter would have involved him starting to grow breasts (but Kano writes "this story makes you think of hormone shots and takes your thoughts in a dangerous direction, so it's probably best that it was rejected.") The very idea of plastic surgery is a little bloody and uncomfortable, and there's also lots of blood and distorted faces in the fight scenes. For cheap gags, take the scene in volume 1 when Rando comes home with his head covered in blood, after head-butting six guys unconscious. "Yuna! What happened?!? You're bleeding!!" his/her parents cry out. "Um…" he answers, "My period…?" Or, the scene when Dr. Manabe's friend psychoanalyzes Rando. "So, despite the fact that you don't want to become a woman, you've put on a woman's face and are living as a woman? I hear you're even wearing an artificial bust. Are you a narcissistic pervert with crossdressing tendencies?"
Wandering Son it ain't, but damn, it is funny. When I was a Viz editor, I tried for years to bring Pretty Face to America, and finally I was rewarded when Viz published it in 2007. A couple of years ago, I did an article on my favorite manga I ever edited, and the only reason I didn't include Pretty Face was because I was still working on it at the time. Now that all six volumes are translated, why not buy some copies from the Viz website as gifts for the ones you love? It's perfect for weddings! Bar mitzvahs! Eid al-fitr! As the ex-editor, I don't get royalties or anything, but Kano would appreciate it. As for me, spreading perverted manga is my only joy.