Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Special Guest Edition: Club 9by Shaenon K. Garrity,
Editor's Note: Jason's on vacation this week, so filling in for him is manga editor, artist, author and respected superheroine Shaenon K. Garrity.
Special Guest Edition: Club 9
Makoto Kobayashi draws the funniest faces in manga. Rubbery and ovoid, they're big in every sense: big lips, big ears, big chins, big round eyes (albeit tiny by manga standards) framed by thick eyelashes and eyebrows, big lumpy noses on the men. Any emotion—laughter, shock, suspicion, disgust—stretches Kobayashi's faces into shapes just on the far side of plausibility, making them sprout un-heretofore-seen wrinkles and folds. Every panel strains with bulging eyes, gaping mouths, and cascades of sweat; no discreet stylized sweatdrop icons here. Few cartoonists, and possibly no manga-ka, can match Kobayashi in the ability to “draw funny” in the purest sense.
Besides funny faces, Kobayashi loves to draw two other things: cute animals and hot women. He indulges the first impulse in his cat comic What's Michael?, the second in Club 9, a sublimely frothy comedy about an innocent farmgirl who puts herself through college as an upscale Tokyo bar hostess.
On a trip to Tokyo a couple of years ago, my husband and I found ourselves wandering late one night through Ginza, the ultra-ritzy commercial district known for including, somewhere in its broad avenues, the priciest chunk of real estate on Earth. Turning down a narrow side street, we found ourselves in a little wonderland of glittery white lights, neon signs, and posh-looking young women dressed in a style I can only describe as Business Slutty. Skinny men in loose suits skulked outside the entrances to the discreet second-floor clubs and bars, smoking. They ignored us, but when a group of drunken businessmen came staggering down the street they leapt into action, ushering them toward the hostess clubs upstairs. There, tired executives could continue their vital corporate social bonding while enjoying overpriced beer, bar snacks, and the attention of the hostesses, women hired to look pretty and make chit-chat while urging the men to spend more money. It was one of several times I was simultaneously delighted and disappointed with Japan for living up to stereotypes straight out of manga—the manga in question, this time, being Club 9.
But imagine how much more spectacular the hostess district in Ginza was in 1992, when Club 9 (Japanese title: Heba! Haru-chan!, roughly translatable as Howdy! Miss Hello!) began. It was the height of the go-go ’90s, the Japanese economic bubble was still poised on the cusp of bursting, and, with manga sales at an all-time high, even manga artists were making bank. Into Kobayashi's shiny evocation of that world, all silk and steel and brand-new mirrored surfaces, stumbles Haruo Hattori, a guileless, big-hearted girl from rural Akita Prefecture. Haruo has moved to Tokyo for college, but as soon as she gets her degree she plans to move back to her little farm town, teach school, and marry her equally earnest baseball-playing lug of a boyfriend. Before leaving home, Haruo swears to stay a virgin—a vow her more worldly mother describes as “jest a li'l ole promise she cain't never keep!”
Indeed, the big city is awash in temptations: square-jawed athletes, high-rolling businessmen, celebrities, fast cars (which Haruo finds hilariously ugly), haute couture. Haruo soon finds herself in need of money so she can move out of her dorm room, which is haunted by a nerdy ghost who pesters her for sex (the manga's only supernatural element, discarded by the end of Volume 1). Through a couple of cannier classmates, she gets a job at Club 9, a swanky hostess club in Ginza. Trussed up in a skimpy cocktail dress, Haruo turns out to be a natural, charming the regulars with her corn-fed cuteness and cornpone charm.
As I was rereading Club 9 for this column, my husband looked over my shoulder and said, “You just want to pick her up and hug her, don't you?” The adorableness of Haruo is the manga's central preoccupation, and the comedy of the character—including slapstick comedy, as she routinely falls ass over teakettle into cesspits and open sewers—only underscores her charm. Kobayashi's women are rounder and fleshier than the modern manga standard, recalling the more voluptuous heroines of 1980s men's manga. Tall, leggy, and full-figured, Haruo looks a lot like a manga version of Francine from Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise, and Kobayashi and Moore display a similar simple delight in drawing women: their poses, their expressions, their clothing, their day-to-day activities. When Kobayashi spends two pages of art on nothing but Haruo laughing—way too much—at a customer's joke, it's clear that this is, for him, the point of the manga: sculpting his central character down to the slightest detail.
Haruo is a girl-next-door type crossed with a Marilyn Monroe-style innocent sexpot—a perky cutie who seems blissfully unaware of the effect her body has on men. In Haruo's case, this extends to accidentally flashing her underwear, revealing too much cleavage, and even getting buck nekkid without being more than mildly embarrassed. (She's not stupid, however, just naïve; she's going to college in Tokyo when most of her classmates are working on the family farm, and it gradually develops that she's a Svengali when it comes to sports.) The fanservice in Club 9 is shameless—in one scene Haruo's dog just yanks her pants off, sending her running around the yard in her panties—but so cheerful and warm-hearted it feels almost wholesome. Everyone's having such a good time, after all: men, women, Haruo herself, the readers, and Kobayashi.
Kobayashi enjoys Club 9 so much, in fact, that he draws himself into it, as club patron “Makoto Konbayashi,” creator of the hit dog manga What's Bear? Konbayashi is a drunken sleaze who insists on autographing hostesses’ boobs and grows petulant when his assistant starts to eclipse him as a manga star. In fact most of the clients of Club 9 are a bit sleazy: hard-drinking businessmen, leering geeks, rich old men hoping to buy a young woman's affection. (Haruo's reaction to her first sight of the room: “Lordy, they're drunker'n pigs in the cider mash!”). But, except for a plotline in Volume 2 about an arrogant TV anchorman who turns into a dangerous stalker, Club 9 avoids delving into the seamy side of the hostess trade. Whereas some manga (like the shojo series B.O.D.Y.) portray hosting/hostessing as a slippery slope to prostitution, the women in Club 9 are having mostly chaste fun: pouring drinks, trading jokes, getting chatted up by interesting men, and making ridiculous amounts of money doing it.
Haruo does eventually meet men who might tempt her to break her hometown vow, like Konbayashi's up-and-coming former assistant and a young baseball star who benefits from her managerial genius, but Club 9 isn't really a romantic comedy. Ultimately, it's about a young woman breaking out of her sheltered small-town life and finding a place for herself in the biggest, richest, glitziest city of them all—hopefully without losing her farmgirl sweetness, whether or not she loses her virginity. Even at its darkest—the stalker plotline, the occasional death or loss—the story never loses the sunniness at its core.
Dark Horse serialized the entire five-volume run of Club 9 in its magazine Super Manga Blast, but only collected the first three volumes. The English adaptation, by manga-industry stalwarts Dana Lewis and Toren Smith, is charming and funny, assuming you enjoy the translation of Haruo's thick Akita dialect into a Hee Haw country drawl: “Don't you talk laik a plumb fool, Kenji Nakamura!” Personally, I have a weakness for corny manga dialect translations, having done many of them myself, and the Dark Horse translation gets across the crucial gag of the country bumpkin bumbling though the big city. Sadly, Dark Horse's Club 9 has been out of print for years. It's one of the manga I'd most like to see back in print, those ridiculous faces grinning and grimacing and howling with laughter again.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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