House of 1000 Manga Inubaka: Crazy for Dogs
by Jason Thompson,
Inubaka: Crazy for Dogs
If you've been following my Twitter or, really, talking to me at all in the last two years, you've probably noticed: we got a dog and I can't stop talking about it. (Not that I don't like cats; I love Junji Ito's Cat Diary.) I had both cats and dogs as a kid, but it wasn't till two years ago that I had a pet as a grownup, i.e., one I had to to feed, to hand-wash, to pick up its poop and all that other stuff my parents used to do, to have agonized moral debates about whether it's crueller to let her chase pigeons or to have her whine and howl and get all fidgety because she wants to chase them so much. The desire to lavish affection on a tiny genetically modified animal isn't just a American thing; Japan in the early 2000s had a "pet boom," with pet stores springing up, pet-specific manga magazines, and pet tales in mainstream manga, like Inubaka: Crazy for Dogs.
Suguri is an 18-year-old girl who loves dogs. She loves them so much she wears a dog collar around her neck. Recently graduated and looking for something more exciting than a boring office job, Suguri leaves the house of her strict parents and moves to Tokyo without a plan, accompanied only by her faithful Lupin, a great big lovable mutt of a dog. An innocent in the big city, Suguri is promptly tricked into getting into a car and hit on by the obligatory creeps; but then, in the first small twist that shows this is a feel-good sort of manga, the creeps decide she's too good for them so they leave her alone and drop her off at a rest stop. At the rest stop, Suguri leaves Lupin alone for a second, and when she comes back—BAM! He's humping a black lab! The lab's owner is Teppei Ida, and he's furious because he was planning to use his prize lab to breed (and sell) thoroughbred puppies. Now it's all ruined because of casual canine sex, and what is Suguri going to do about it?
But luckily, it's not that bad; Teppei's really a nice guy, in fact, he's the other main character of the manga. 26 years old, beneath a cynical look and a goatee, he's the hard-working manager of "Woofles," a pet store that specializes in toy breeds. (They're the most popular in Japan, due to small apartments and limited living space.) He's got corgis. He's got yorkshire terriers. He's got spaniels. What he doesn't have is an employee who can help him take care of all the dogs, someone who's better than his current part-timer Kentaro, a scruffy deadbeat who likes to play guitar, make inappropriate comments, and give the dogs beer. Could Suguri be the one? At first, Teppei is skeptical of her abilities: he's used to getting job applications from people who think dogs are cute but aren't really willing to get down & dirty and clean up poop every day. But watching Suguri at work, he realizes she's no fair-weather dog-lover. In the first chapter alone (1) a dachshund pees on Suguri, (2) Suguri proves her worth by catching fresh dog poop in her bare hands so a dog won't poop on the seat of an expensive car (the mangaka loves this so much it happens again in later chapters), and then in the climax (3) the entire store full of dogs pees "happy pee" because they're so excited to see Suguri come in the front door! ("Is it some strange signal she sends?" Teppei wonders.) With Suguri's work ethic, her mysterious "dog sense," and her willingness to get peed on, combined with Teppei's encyclopedic knowledge of dogs, they're poised to make Woofles a success!
Suguri crashes at the store, because she doesn't have anywhere else to go, and soon she and Teppei are changing the lives of lots of dog-loving customers, especially (but not always) cute girls. Inubaka ran in the seinen magazine Young Jump, which like most seinen magazines has plenty of sex and gravure photos of half-naked women. But although there's lots of pin-up shots of Suguri looking enthusiastic while wearing two-piece swimsuits, and an uncovered butt or two, Inubaka is actually surprisingly family-friendly. The primary fanservice here is cute dogs, not cute girls, and the first image in the manga is a closeup of a miniature dachshund. Even the scenes when characters' dogs hump each other (clearly an expression of the characters' raging sexual tension) are discreet. The human characters are well-drawn enough, albeit in a generic style, and the dogs are drawn with great detail. Interestingly for a manga, the dogs aren't anthropomorphized at all; they don't have human facial expressions like in Guru Guru Pon-chan, they don't think out loud like in Ginga Legend Weed, and they don't have any special powers (except for the pseudo-psychic story when a dog astrally projects itself to warn its distant owner of danger—or was it all just a dream?). It's just lovable, adorable, skillfully traced-looking gravure photos of dogs.
Mostly, the heroes get to meet a lot of dog owners and their dogs. There's Kanako, the teacher at the piano school upstairs, who spoils her Pomeranian and dresses it in human clothes. Show Kanako, the uptight manager of Woofles' main shop (it's a chain), is a doggie elitist: ""If you don't have resources economically or socially, you have no right to have a dog!" Akiba, the creepy idol otaku, feels his heart open up to 3D life forms when he buys a french bulldog (causing him to promptly become a dog otaku). Chizuru, a teenage girl who owned a dog in her youth but now thinks dogs are stupid, finds herself liking dogs again after a talk with Suguri and Teppei, and she becomes a good owner for her chihuahua. Yukiya Sakuragi liked this character arc so much that she redoes it later with Yamarin, a professional model, who has to do a photo shoot with a Papillon and then is reminded of a dog she used to have and buys the Papillon and becomes a carefree dog owner. All of these happy pet owners end up becoming friends of the main characters and hanging out in the shop in increasing numbers like obsolete allies in Dragon Ball Z. Along the way, there's lots of teaching moments, both serious and lighthearted:
* dog food do's and don'ts, including in volume 5, a "cooking for dogs" segment
* how to train dogs by praising them a lot
* how to bring home a new puppy
* a whole storyline about neutering
* eating their own poop is a common problem in younger dogs! ("You might feel sorry for the puppies, but we have to teach them not to eat poop.")
* apparently, according to the author, it's rude to talk about a dog's imminent death when the dog can hear you. ("How can she say 'when he dies' about such a nice dog…how could she…!")
* droopy-eared Papillons are a whole different breed, phalenes!
* little dogs sneezing are cute
* don't let dogs chew on electric cables
* if they do chew on cables, you should know how to perform CPR on dogs
* dog poo isn't just an adorable animated character. You can learn a lot from it about the dog's health ("Ooh! Nice dump! Good color and shape. Very healthy!")
* the most terrifying dog fact of all, one which I wish I never learned: how to squeeze their anal glands
For awhile, it seems like this is the formula for Inubaka: Suguri and Teppei, the pet shop owners, solve everyone's problems by getting them the perfect dog. But as the manga goes on, the stories start to drift in different directions, as if the author, Sakuragi, wanted to mix it up, or couldn't think of enough one-off dog stories. Considering the cover art and all the cute girls (and Teppei's sexy goatee), romantic subplots are inevitable, but they aren't as significant a part of the manga as you'd think. The first glimmer of a love triangle appears with the return of Teppei's ex, Haruka, who dumped him because he was paying too much attention to his new dog, but has second thoughts when she discovers that he's parlayed his dog obsession into a business. (Alas, Haruka doesn't stick around long; apparently, to Young Jump readers, a successful businesswoman and magazine editor is a less appealing love interest than an 18-year-old girl who works for the main character and whose main trait is doggishness.) Suguri also has her share of admirers, chiefly Kim, a good-looking Korean guy who's scared of dogs but learns to overcome his phobia after he falls in love with Suguri. The flirtation between Suguri and Kim is played out symbolically as a meeting between Jindo gae, the Korean national dog, and Shiba Inu, the national dog of Japan…unfortunately, things take a darker turn when Kim confesses that, back in Korea, dog meat is still used in cooking in poor rural areas.
In fact, the variety of stories is the best thing about this manga. Some subplots are predictable. Hard-headed Teppei warns Suguri not to fall in love with every dog in the store ("Don't give the dogs names! They're merchandise! Of course you have to take care of them with love, but not special feelings, understand?") But even Teppei is filled with righteous rage when Suguri uncovers a black-market dog dealer who keeps dogs in filthy conditions. ("You can't treat dogs like accessories or handbags!") Troubled youth seem attracted to Woofles and frequently use the pet store as a sort of halfway home, from Kentaro's misanthropic little sister Mika, to Momoko, a dog groomer pressured into crime by her deadbeat loser boyfriend. There's an agility training story arc, where Suguri volunteers to train Henry, an emotionally troubled German shepherd, for an agility competition. Want another tournament story arc? How about when Wan Kaw, a rival megacorporate pet store, sponsors a dog dancing competition, and Suguri has to take a pole dancing class while Lupin learns how to "scratch" records?! In volume 8, Lupin gets lost and has to find his way all across Japan back to Suguri, The Incredible Journey style. Meanwhile, back at home, Suguri forms a band called "The Pet Shop Girls" and sings songs about how much she loves her dog to try to inspire her listeners to find him.
The pole-dancing competition between Suguri, Yasmin and Angel is pretty silly, but Inubaka has a serious side too. Few things are as depressing as the death of a beloved pet, and Sakuragispends an entire volume on one dog's death and her owner's grief. There's the arc about rescuing an abused shelter dog, and another memorable story when Suguri takes a stand for a dog who bit a girl's hand and whose family now wants to put her down ("There must have been a reason for the dog to behave badly!") Kim, Suguri's would-be love interest, eventually gets a dog of his own, and he and Suguri start talking about a serious relationship commitment: having Kim's dog, Chanta, mate with Suguri's dog, Lupin, so they can make beautiful puppies together. That's until Teppei finds out and butts in, warning Suguri that dog breeding is not something to take lightly and there are already too many unwanted dogs in the world. It gets even more intense when Kim confronts Teppei, demanding to know why he won't give his blessing to their union: "I know that the two of us could bring happiness to the puppies that would arrive! So why are you trying to take this happiness away from us?" Teppei responds: "All dogs live in human society! I'm not sure that letting them breed according to their natural instincts would give them true happiness! I'm against any breeding that lacks a plan!" Things get really dark around volume 15, when we meet (1) a sadistic animal killer and (2) a figure from Suguri's dark past which has been hinted at for the entire series, the kidnapper who stole her away for a few terrifying days when she was a little girl! ("I just thought I had to have you as a pet. A pure, obedient little girl…") But wait, that's not all! In volume 17 we meet Serina, a housewife who buys a dog as a baby substitute and then decides she doesn't want the dog anymore. "I'll show you what Your Dog is feeling!" Suguri vows, and shows up at Serina's apartment dressed in a dog suit, spending three chapters pretending to be a dog to melt Serina's icy heart. ("I gotta pee! Where should I do it?")
Inubaka is super cheesy, but it takes the premise to interesting places; not towards any real character development or story arc, but towards some entertaining and sometimes thoughtful side-stories. In Japan, it ran for 22 dog-packed volumes. In America, Viz quietly canceled the series after volume 17, leaving us hanging (well, "hanging," it's not exactly intense) to find out whether Suguri ever gets a boyfriend, or what happens to the animal-mutilating sadist, or if the team ever develops and markets that new dog toy they were planning. But you do get to see lots of drawings of happy-looking, mostly toy-breed dogs. I hate to write a review that uses the cop-out line, "If you like ____, you'll like this," but if you're a dog owner, you might like Inubaka. Non-dog-owners will probably find it dull, if not stupid and annoying, but if you own a dog, there's an automatic emotional reaction to seeing those little faces staring at you. Reading this manga will summon up the heartwarming feelings of looking at a wire-haired dachshund, and you'll find yourself slipping into baby talk and wanting to take portions of food out of your mouth and place them in the mouth of a filthy, lovable, poop-eating animal. Let's face it: this is dog porn. But if that's your thing, I can't judge.
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