by Carl Kimlinger,

Baby & Me

GN 14

Baby & Me GN 14
A cover-up is underway at the Fujii household. The criminal? Ichika. The crime? Bed-wetting. Most toddlers aren't capable of masterminding a cover-up, but Ichika's one precocious little girl, and she gives it the old college (pre-school?) try. Too bad she's doomed to failure. Later Takuya spots an old lady who looks remarkably like his pug-faced pal Gon. She is, of course, Gon's grandmother, and like everyone else in his household, she proves to be a real handful. Minoru proves that he too can be a handful when a new toy—a tiny motorized car—so takes his fancy that he fumes at anyone who gets between him and his driving privileges. Then Tomoko, wife of neighborhood nuisance Seiichi, befriends another young mother, Shiho, who is slowly drowning in the waters of new motherhood. Vulnerable by nature and burdened with a needy child and an unsupportive husband, Shiho finds herself taking out her frustrations on her infant son. Horrified, she turns to, of all people, Takuya for advice.

This isn't Baby & Me's best volume—that honor goes to the wringing thirteenth volume—but it is in many ways the most representative one. Unlike the continuous flashbacks of volume thirteen, there is no continuity between chapters here (outside of the two-chapter Shiho story). These are, like the majority of Baby & Me, standalone vignettes about the little trials in the everyday lives of kids, adults, and toddlers. And like the majority of Baby & Me, it is at turns funny, touching and thoughtful, often in the span of a single chapter and sometimes at the exact same time. Standalone tales are often maligned for being an easy and shallow alternative to telling long, involved stories, but Ragawa can pack more truth and feeling into a single throwaway chapter than many manga manage in their entire runs. She can dig deeper into a character in thirty pages than your average comic can in hundreds. In a mere sixty here she presents a convincing portrait of a family on the brink of child abuse, and more so does it with stunning sympathy. She explores a blinding array of often incredibly complex emotions, from the melancholy of aging as the world leaves you behind (Gon's grandma) to the heartsickness of realizing that you have become the parent you once abhorred (Shiho's husband), and does so with honesty and economy.

And all while never losing her light, often humorous touch. As easy as it is to focus on Baby & Me's deceptively simple treatment of complicated relationships and feelings, one shouldn't forget that it is as much a comedy as it is a drama. And an often very funny one at that. It's customary for Ragawa to end her chapters with a sublimely silly gag, and even her most serious developments are leavened with laughs. Her screwball characters act like screwballs no matter how heavy the plot and she has an enviable ability—though not exercised much this volume—to find the humor in grim situations. And of course her purely comic episodes are delights. The Valentine's Day chapter that caps off this volume builds to a priceless pratfall and even the otherwise unremarkable Ichika chapter is rife with amusingly childlike behavior.

As one would expect from a manga about children, Ragawa's art is very cute-centric. And few artists can do cute like Ragawa. Her cast is swarming with adorable tots, every one drawn with her own unique brand of chubby-cheeked cuteness. She suffers some from a few of shojo's usual artistic drawbacks, including pages with a few too many tiny panels and a dearth of background detail, not to mention sparkles and spontaneously blooming flowers. But her characters are so believably cuddly (and expressive) and her forthright style so effective that it's hard to hold that against her. There's no trickery or falsehood in Ragawa's art; it is focused to its utmost on communicating as clearly as possible the events and internal states affecting its cast. No panel is wasted and yet no sequence hurried; it is, in its own shaggy way, perfect.

Viz didn't but much effort into making Baby & Me stand out. The interior of the book is fine—with nice, clear art reproduction and decent English replacements for the original sound effects—but the crucial outward appearance is not one to inspire confidence in the content. Designed in the standard Shojo Beat format and saddled with a blandly composed cover, it's a very poor indicator of the great time to be had within.

Production Info:
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+

+ Still cute, funny and moving after all this time; presents unpleasant behavior with rare insight and generosity of spirit.
What? You want me to dis it? ...Um, more quietly smart than blindingly brilliant? Oh yeah, also slow and discontinuous.

Story & Art: Marimo Ragawa

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