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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Happy Mania

by Jason Thompson,

Episode X: Happy Mania

See them on their big bright screen
Tan and blonde and seventeen
Eating nonfood keeps them mean
But they're young forever
—The Magnetic Fields, "California Girls"

Happy Mania is the story of a woman looking for true love in a superficial world, and if you just read Volume 1, you can see what Moyoco Anno might have been like if she'd been a normal manga artist. Her characters, with their big round Shōjo Manga eyes, look a little like Hinako Ashihara's (Sand Chronicles). The relative lack of screentone and the fact that the characters aren't virgins, are typical for josei (women's) manga. For awhile it seems like it might all turn into a ordinary romance (with sex), but pretty soon, it becomes a great, original manga; I've kept the graphic novels with me through four moves and several relationships. The more mediocre romance manga I read-- the more Harlequin manga and LuvLuv manga and the like-- the more I appreciate Moyoco Anno, both for her art, and for her willingness to break out of formula and take her stories to strange, strange places.

Anno debuted as a shojo manga artist, publishing a story in Bessatsu Friend DX Juliet at the age of 18. Her career took an unusual turn when she became the assistant to Kyoko Okazaki, a manga artist known for her erotic, edgy stories, such as Helter Skelter, a manga about an unhinged supermodel and her unhealthy experiments in plastic surgery. In 1995, Anno went out on her own and started Happy Mania in the hipster-woman manga magazine Feel Young, which also published works by artists like Mari Okazaki and Erica Sakurazawa.

Someone at Tokyopop must have liked the magazine, because from 2003-2005 they translated all of these artists, creating the first-- and still the best-- josei manga line in English. There's a debate among English manga publishers about whether American readers can get into josei and seinen (adult women's and men's) manga., particularly the realistic stuff, without magic and collectible cards and so on. In Japan, it seems natural to that young readers who grow up reading manga about 14-year-olds will eventually want to read manga about older people, people their own age, as they reach college age, their twenties, their thirties, etc. But in America, even critically acclaimed grownup titles like Golgo 13 and Oishinbo don't sell well, and on the women's side, josei manga hasn't done much better. (Mari Okazaki's Suppli was one of the Tokyopop titles left in limbo when the company had financial trouble in 2008, although Tokyopop eventually did the awesome thing and continued it.)

It's a hard sell. Comic retailer Brian Hibbs, in an article about the state of the industry in 2010, theorized that a certain percentage of tween manga readers, like American comics readers, simply get distracted from manga as they get older (read: go through puberty) and never come back to it. As for why adult men and women, people who are old enough to appreciate a story about semi-realistic sex and relationships rather than a Twilight-esque "pure love without the icky stuff" shojo manga or a typical "hee hee, panties, hee hee, boobs" shonen manga, aren't picking up manga for the first time-- well, maybe they're just too set in their ways to start reading comics. So the idea is that there isn't a big enough market for realistic manga in general…and in particular, manga which deals with adult stuff (read: sex) in a way that isn't just escapist, over-the-top porn (read: almost all "adult" adult manga and most yaoi). And among that non-porn josei sex manga, much of it is emo stories about loneliness and hookups and affairs and sad hours working late at the office, a very crude but, I think, somewhat accurate description of most of the manga of Mari Okazaki and Erica Sakurazawa.

And that is what Happy Mania is about too, except that it is a comedy and it is hilarious.When we first see the heroine, Shigeta, she is a 24-year-old working a dead-end job in a bookstore, obsessed with finding love. She reads women's magazines and horoscopes, trying to figure out how to be more attractive, complaining about men "I want someone better-looking…someone totally out of my league!" One after the other, she sees some good-looking guy, falls in love with him, and the guy turns out to be a complete jerk. From one failed relationship to another, Shigeta pursues her quest for happiness (hence the title). Will she ever find the man of her dreams? And will she ever spare a second glance for her coworker, Takahashi, a loyal, glasses-wearing, kinda cute nerd who follows her around with a crush, thinking "What can I do to make Ms. Shigeta happy?"

So far this could be a normal manga. even a tween girls' manga, right? But Happy Mania has fairly explicit sex, and Shigeta actually sleeps with all the lousy losers in the story, from the obviously lame guys in volume one to the deeper, you-have-to-really-get-to-know-them-to-appreciate-how-much-they-suck guys in later volumes (an worthless ex-boyfriend; a married adulterer; a writer who at first appears to be a creative, independent rebel but turns out to be the worst of them all). "I screw to make a guy my boyfriend," she thinks. "But afterwards…it's after that's the problem. How do I make it past the sex?" Between affairs, she goes back to her apartment and confides everything to her chain-smoking roommate Fuku, who's a little too old and jaded to be impressed by the details of Shigeta's reckless sex life ("I let him make love to me without using a condom! If that's not love, what is it?") Her judgment in men is bad to the point of black comedy. Since she often quits her job in order to pursue whatever guy she is into, and she has no real job skills, her financial situation is instable. She spends a lot of time walking around her apartment in pajamas. At one point she has to go home to borrow money from her parents, but her mother (in a Japanese twist on the 'religious parents' scenario) turns out to be a devoted Buddhist who makes Shigeta go to the temple to be cleansed of her sins.

Perhaps this material sounds not funny but incredibly depressing, but Anno manages to make it all seem fun, at least if you're twisted enough. Or really, it's not Anno who makes it fun, it's Shigeta. The mania part of the title isn't there for nothing; when Shigeta is happy in a relationship, she is so, so happy! She turns cartwheels, she laughs, she does anime-character poses, she pursues her misguided love with the fiery passion of a shonen manga character wanting to be the King of the Pirates, even if she hasn't eaten in two days and she has circles under her eyes from lack of sleep and the rent is due. Where other mangaka would focus on the depressing side of all this and turn it into a grueling mopefest, Anno does the exact opposite. We, the readers, know that Shigeta is deluding herself, that her latest flame is bad news. But Shigeta doesn't know-- at least not most of the time-- and her false bravado and hyperactive enthusiasm adds a sweetness to the sourness, keeps us riding along on a rollercoaster ride into deeper and deeper circles of relationship disaster. Luckily, even Shigeta isn't a total idiot, and there are some places where the manga never goes-- for one, she never stays with a guy who physically abuses her. And she has her self-doubting, neurotic moments ("What's wrong with these guys? If they like me that much, there must be something wrong with them!"), and her lucid brilliant moments, and her friends (the hapless Fuku) to keep her sort of on track. For all her flaws, Shigeta is a likeable, even lovable character. Most of the time.

And she has Takahashi. From the first chapter on, it's obvious that Shigeta's true love is Takahashi, and that the point of the manga will be to bring them together…right? Our nerdy hero Takahashi watches patiently, like in that Johnny Cash song "Next in Line," for Shigeta to realize that he's the one. (One way you can tell this manga was written for women, not men, is that Takahashi is actually pretty hot with his glasses off and is several years younger than the heroine. He's not just some schlub.) By volume 2, she is beginning to consider getting married to him, but that's just because she wants someone to pay her expenses. She's just not attracted to him, all right? "Maybe I'll live with Takahashi. He's so good to me and he's sweet. But could I bring myself to have sex with him…? Not just a blow job…?" The thought makes her gag. Maybe she won't get with Takahashi. Or will she? Just when things are heating up, Takahashi heads to America to study abroad and vanishes from Shigeta's life. Left in Japan without Takahashi, Shigeta starts falling in love with a series of new, even more awful guys. And, Takahashi also changes, becoming not quite the awesome guy that he appeared to be, and not just in a clichéd "he's actually a fiery passionate jealous beast deep inside" way, either.

I can describe the cynicism and hilarity and sexiness of Happy Mania, but pictures are better than words for showing off one of its best qualities: Moyoco Anno's art. As I mentioned, the art starts out pretty normal, but soon Anno develops one of the most distinctive styles in women's manga. Her figures have a wonderful loose quality, with the vigor of sketches, but unlike some mangaka, she's fully capable of drawing her characters in any pose and at any angle. Her variety of faces and hairstyles is impressive; perhaps it's to show that off that Shigeta changes her style several times over the course of the series, altering her appearance again and again, making her a sort of Everywoman. (Not to mention that she also works a dozen jobs: telemarketer, cosmetics saleslady, editor, grocer, ceramicist, club hostess…) Her facial expressions are as over-the-top and bold as the story demands. And you'll either love or hate the way she draws eyes, huge and cat-pupiled with heavy lashes, with a weird weight and three-dimensionality, like those computer-altered photos of what manga/anime eyes would look like "in real life." Anno's art gets better and better as the series goes on, giving us a taste of the truly gorgeous, superdetailed artwork (did I mention she can draw backgrounds too?) of her later shojo magical girl series, Sugar Sugar Rune (published by Del Rey and just as awesome, in its own way, as Happy Mania).

Happy Mania is 11 volumes long, and the last nine volumes get pretty weird and off-track, as both Takahashi and Shigeta get older and experience some awful relationships. In fact, some could say that the series drags on too long, using too many new characters and plot devices (amnesia, for one) to keep things going. It's a fair accusation; Happy Mania does repeat itself after awhile, the novelty of watching Shigeta do self-destructive things does wear thin. But it's still impressive to see how Anno takes the story in unexpected directions. Happy Mania is ultimately about frustration, about dissatisfaction…about wanting something and not getting it. Like Shigeta pursuing her countless ADD-infused loves, it seems to go off in new story directions at a whim. People who like its off-kilter plotting may want to check out Flowers & Bees, another Moyoco Anno series published a few years ago by Viz. Almost a male version of Happy Mania, it's a seinen manga about a high school kid who wants to be better-looking, get laid and get a girlfriend—a typical harem manga plot which Anno eviscerates, treating the hapless hero almost as cruelly as she treats Shigeta. The Viz edition, rewritten by Carl Gustav Horn, is more crammed with jokes than three normal love comedy manga (of course, a lot of the jokes were made up for the rewrite, but just like Carl's rewrite of Excel Saga, it's so funny I don't care).

In March 2008, Anno announced on her blog that she was dramatically curtailing her manga career and putting most of her titles (except for the Asashi Shinbun newspaper gag strip Ochibi-san) on hiatus to concentrate on her health. Hopefully she'll be back to doing story manga before too long. Happy Mania is one of her best works, but any Moyoco Anno manga is good news.

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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