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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Rainy Day 5-for-1 JManga Special

by Jason Thompson,


Episode CXXX: Rainy Day Five-for-One JManga Special

It's a gray, gloomy day in Seattle, and I don't know what manga I'm going to review. Confession: I was going to review Mai the Psychic Girl, but when I went to my parents' house for Thanksgiving I left it there, 500 miles away. Normally my modus operandi in these cases is:

(1) go to the library and find something weird
(2) go to Kinokuniya Seattle
(3) go to a certain comics company and finagle my way in to read their manga collection
(4) order some weird manga on alibris or milehighcomics
(5) skip ahead on my 'master list' and dig something out of the basement
(6) find something online

The problem (1), (2) and (3) require leaving the house. This is Seattle and it's freezing cold even though it's not even December. (4) is also out of the question, for obvious reasons that my column is due in just a few hours. (5) is a possibility…but the next manga on my list are REALLY LONG and, again, time is of the essence. (Yes, it's an in-the-nick-of-time business, this manga reviewing. At least the way I do it.)

That leaves one option: (6) find something online. Something legal. (Although desire not to leave the house is obviously a huge factor in the popularity of scanlations.) The amount of legal online manga has boomed in the past few years, but it's still fairly small. Viz's early manga sites like SigIkki and the "simultaneous Rin-ne experiment" were just test runs for their shiny new web magazine, Shonen Jump Alpha. But, embarrassingly, I don't have an iPad or Kindle (aside from the Kindle emulator), so my tablet-manga options are limited. I want to write about Shonen Jump Alpha eventually, and also Yen Plus, but it'll have to wait.

There's another problem: most online manga from major publishers are the same as their print manga. The manga that gets ported online is (with a few exceptions such as SigIkki, which hasn't been updated in a year, and the original-dojinshi site GENmanga) only the most popular titles. And, frankly, that's boring. As a manga nerd, I don't want popular titles. I want publishers to use the reduced costs of digital manga as a way to translate obscure, weird, niche manga which could never make back its print costs. DMP's Digital Manga Guild does do this, but (unfortunately, IMHO) almost everything they translate is Boy's Love manga, and if I started reviewing random online Boy's Love manga, this column would get really dirty, really fast. No, I have to find something else.

Which brings me to my rainy-day choice: one digital-manga site that I really like is jmanga.com. Jmanga is a site which had a rough launch but has been reliably translating some very odd manga for about one and a half years. The problem with the launch was that it promised too much: at launch, the site had placeholder entries for dozens of manga you couldn't actually read: all the major Shonen Jump titles, and tons of Shojo Beat manga, to name just a few. Futilely clicking on a One Piece link only to be faced with a "coming soon" page was really frustrating, but a few months later, the unreadable manga mysteriously vanished from the site: I can only guess that some sneaky behind-the-scenes licensing deals resulted in jmanga.com nearly, but not quite, getting digital rights to all of Viz's most popular titles.

The result was, jmanga launched without any real hit titles; but for hardcore manga nerds who don't just want to read a cheap digital version of Naruto, there was, and is, still some really interesting stuff there. I've already written a bit about some of their food manga, particularly the amazing Gokudou Meshi, about criminals in jail competing to see who can tell the most mouth-watering story about food. (Someone should make this into indy RPG.) They have a bunch of old shonen manga by Takao Saito, although for whatever reason, not Golgo 13. They have Fuyumi Kouno's excellent Hiroshima-bombing historical manga Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms and its sequel, To All the Corners of the Earth. They have seinen manga about all sorts of random topics, tons of josei manga—most of it Harlequin romances, but anyway—and quite a few yaoi. And interestingly, they have a ton of license rescues from publishers including Tokyopop (Neko Ramen, Animal Academy), Aurora Publishing (Hitohira), and nearly every single Del Rey manga not picked up by Kodansha Comics (Princess Resurrection, School Rumble, Pumpkin Scissors, etc.). Their selection of 'normal' shojo and shonen manga isn't that good (but then again, almost all weekly shonen manga is published by Shueisha and Shogakukan, who only license to Viz; or by Kodansha, who only licenses to Kodansha Comics; or by Shonen Champion, whose stuff is so weird it's hardly even shonen). But they have all kinds of strange stuff, and since the launch, their number of titles has slowly but steadily gone up and up. Their site gives the feeling of browsing through the bookshelves in Kinokuniya flipping through random titles from smaller publishers (Futabasha, Takeshobo, MAG Garden, etc.). For me,—and perhaps for anyone tired of the current state of print manga publishing where publishers only dare to print the safest titles—it's a very satisfying feeling.

There are some problems with the site. For one thing, it has the noisiest visual look imaginable. The way titles are listed by genre, series and volume number is a little confusing and once I bought the wrong volume of a series by accident. Also, the reading interface (which is actually quite good and lets you switch between single-page, double-page and guided-view) works on desktop and Android but isn't available for iPhone or iPad. (Could Apple's censorship policies be a factor?) One thing which used to be a problem but isn't so much anymore is that you have to buy access to individual titles with "points" (at 499 points each, it works out to about $4-5 per volume). Now you can pay as you go, but when the site first launched, you could only "subscribe", which gave you X number of free points per month and continued to bill your Paypal monthly. When the site launched, I subscribed, read some titles, and went away and forgot about it. Then I came back recently to find that my credit card had been billed every month the whole time (what can I say, I forget about these things) and I had 20,000 points. So what better thing to do than spend them? Here's five capsule reviews of jmanga titles that I was curious enough about to pay money for.

1. Ninja Papa (Yasuhito Yamamoto)
Nobuo Matsuri is a bald, middle-aged ninja who has renounced his clan to work at a corporation and live a normal married life; now, his greatest pleasure is living with his wife and kids and eating tofu hamburger for dinner. (Admittedly, he and his wife do have a great sex life, as demonstrated graphically in every chapter.) At the dinner table, he's mocked by his haglike mother-in-law…at work, he's picked on by his boss…and yet, he endures it all for the sake of love and family! "The only thing in this world I can believe in is my family," he thinks. "But my beloved wife doesn't know I'm a ninja…" But although he's a pathetic loser in his daily life, Nobuo's katana is as sharp as ever, and when his family is threatened by thugs and creeps (and members of Nobuo's own clan sent to track him down), Nobuo covers his bald dome with his shinobi shôzoku, does the Clark Kent-Superman thing, and KICKS MAJOR ASS. ("A society where punk kids can do whatever they want? These days society is self-indulgent, contemptible, filled with lies and empty hope! WHO WILL SAVE IT?")

Ninja Papa is old-school, trashy, ridiculous oyaji-gar manga by salarymen, for salarymen, about salarymen. Make that super ninja salarymen. Kiminori Wakasugi (Detroit Metal City) used to be Yamamoto's assistant, and Ninja Papa has some of the same absurd-stupid sense of humor, but stupider. It also has super-slick, photo-traced '80s-style muscle art; fans of ultraviolent manga like Riki-Oh! will get off on scenes when Ninja Papa lobotomizes villains by sticking his fingers through their skull into their brain and stirring it around. Of course, they'll also have to endure a lot of inane speeches about the power of love, and a lot of really ugly character designs, but that comes with the territory. This is one of those so-excessive-it's-beyond-irony manga. Thumbs up.

2. Sekine's Love (Haruka Kawachi)
Sekine is a 30-year-old company employee who's too handsome for his own good. (Or at least that's what the author tells us; personally, I've seen hotter.) His whole life, he's been sexually harassed by both men and women…but beneath his cold good looks, he's got no goals or inner life. ("Team captain. Committee chairman. President. Lover. They were just roles that were placed upon me. A life in passivity, huh…I'm a pretty boring guy, aren't I?") One day after these brooding thoughts, he decides to get a hobby. He goes to a handicrafts shop where he meets Sara, a girl who teaches him knitting. But knitting sweaters with "SEKINE" on the back, and spending time with Sara, doesn't fill the hole in his soul…the hole where he hides his fetish for emaciated women, especially Kazune, his coworker's wife, who he imagines as a skeleton, fantasizing about her limbs snapping in impossible ways. Sara, the yarn store girl, is unaware of this at first, seeing Sekine only as a quiet, standoffish, but sweetly fragile guy…

Did I mention also that Sekine has a recurring blister on his foot? And that he cries expressionlessly at random times? It's clearly not just the main character who has a thing for frail and damaged characters; but this is nothing surprising for a manga published in Manga Erotics F, a manga magazine not only edited by fellow skinny-fetishist Naoki Yamamoto, but known for printing manga like Ristorante Paradiso that MIGHT turn into porn at any moment but generally choose not to. The disturbing character dynamics give Sekine's Love an interesting twist, although the yarn subplot turns out to be unimportant. But as of the end of volume one (all that's been translated so far), the slow-moving story has spent much time in a holding pattern, and I'm not sure whether the "creepy + quirky + emo" flavor mix will taste all right in the end. (And this may be shallow of me, but it might've helped if Kawachi were able to draw Sekine (and the other characters) better-looking; I know attractiveness is subjective, but to me, he just reminded me of the guy in Bunny Drop.) Thumbs down, with a faint twitching sensation.

3. Pupa (Sayaka Mogi)
Utsutsu and his younger teenage sister, Yume, live alone, ever since they escaped their father, an abusive sadist who left Utsutsu's body covered with scars and cigarette burns.  Utsutsu would do anything to keep his sweet sister safe…but everything goes wrong that horrible day when Yume encounters the mysterious "red butterflies" (a secret government project? a bioweapon?) which change her into a mutant cannibal who eats her brother alive. Yume wakes up the next day to find herself back in human form. Her brother's dismembered corpse is gone, but the inhuman hunger remains. But before she can transform again, Utsutsu returns, alive and whole! He has somehow transformed into another kind of mutant, who can regenerate from any wound, and only his body contains the chemical which will temporarily stop Yume from turning into a vicious, ravening monster. Until they find a cure, the saintly Utsutsu must offer HIS OWN FLESH to his sister's hunger to keep her from losing her humanity entirely!!

One of the only horror manga on jmanga, Pupa definitely wins points for imaginative depravity. ("I feel happy, being eaten by my cute sister…") Once I figured out where this was going, for 10 or so pages, I briefly loved this manga. Unfortunately, Sayaka Mogi, who may be a newbie mangaka (I can't find any info about her online), doesn't quite have the art and writing skills to pull it off. The crude art creates clashing moods; Utsutsu looks like he belongs in a shojo manga, Yume's terrifying mutant form looks like The Cat from Fruits Basket with guts dangling out of its mouth,and as for the sinister/sexy head researcher, I hope she turns out to be a witch, rather than being a scientist who wears a witch's hat and carries a cat around just because. The two-dimensional bad guys, hammy dialogue ("What this body wants…so awful…when I see my friends or passerby…I think they look so tasty…"), sadistic gore, and loose sense of logic may all part of an intentional monster-movie feel, but it steers the series (I think unintentionally) away from creepy horror towards cheesy gross-out. (Though, I guess sibling cannibalism-incest manga don't often take the high road.) Thumbs reluctantly down, because I wanted it to be awesome.

4. Recorder and Ransell (Meme Higashiya)
One area that jmanga has pretty well covered is yonkoma manga. I'm growing to appreciate the genre (I'm working on a 4-panel strip myself), but I find that, like with American newspaper strips, the repeat-the-same-jokes-over-and-over-again thing works better in short doses than if you sit down and read 120 pages at once. Recorder and Ransell is a good example of this. Atsumi and Atsushi are sister and brother, but they're a little unusual: Atsumi is a high school sophomore but she looks like she's about 10, and Atsushi is a fifth grader but he looks adult and he's 6 feet tall. Although Atsushi has a 'normal' kid personality and loves Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and stuff, everyone who sees him for the first time thinks he's a weird adult who wears a little kid's backpack (the "randsell") and plays a recorder. All the humor resolves around people mistaking Atsumi for a little girl and Atsushi for a grownup; a recurring joke is that, whenever Atsushi hangs out with the girls in his class, the police think he's a pedophile ("I've caught a suspicious man trying to run off with a little girl!"). Hilarity ensues, or would if this same joke didn't happen about once every four strips. Another subplot involves Atsushi's big-breasted homeroom teacher, Moriyama-sensei, who knows that Atsushi is just a boy (he's prepubescent, thankfully) but can't help feeling extremely uncomfortable and hot and sweaty around him. At least it's not another "four students and a teacher" Azumanga Daioh rip-off yon-koma, but ageplay jokes alone do not a manga make. Thumbs down.

5. Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru (Masakazu Ishiguro)
Now this one surprised me. A comedy about some girls who work in a maid café—especially Arashiyama, a scatterbrained girl who loves mystery novels, and has a crush on her math teacher—Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru mostly avoids the cute-girl moe maid clichés after the first chapter. Instead, the frilly maid outfits are only the surface lure for clever, surreal black comedy and sweetly twisted little stories about the town full of weirdos around the café. (To quote the author: "the maid cafe is only a part of the shopping district, and the shopping district is only a part of the setting that is our everyday life.") There's love triangles and bizarre anarchy, and best of all, there's lots of good dialogue, of which I can only pick a few random excerpts (Arashiyama's coworker to Arashiyama: "You play the role of an obedient servant so that men will grant you favors! That is maid magic!" Annoyed customer to Arashiyama: "You're like a hamburger without patty, cheese, or pickle!" And you have to respect the villainous math teacher, who's so cold he can reject a girl with the equation "(Man+Woman)/Morals=0".) Even if, like me, the words "maid manga" give you chills on the sunniest day, this one is worth checking out. Thumbs up. And I'd definitely support the creator by paying real money to read it online.

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