The Mike Toole Show
Ai Am Legend

by Mike Toole,

This week, the anime director Osamu Kobayashi fired off some tweets in English. When asked if he'd done anything new lately, since his last project, an episode of Dantalian, was several years ago, he replied, “I directed the 13 episodes of the new Lupin III. And Garow2,I drew storyboards of 2episodes.” This isn't just good news because it gives us some insight about the still-very-mysterious new Lupin the 3rd TV series and the anticipated Garo 2, but because it means that a fine and talented auteur director is back at it. Kobayashi's one of those directors that always makes me wonder why he doesn't have more work.

Of course, his friendly banter got my section of anitwitter (remember, if you use twitter to talk about anime, you're part of anitwitter!) to start discussing the much-maligned episode four of Gurren Lagann, which he'd directed. Opinions about that episode, eight years later, remain fiercely divided-- it's a bit sloppy and looks nothing at all like the rest of the series, sure. But when I watched it I immediately recognized the director's style and enjoyed what he was doing with the characters. He did a good job introducing Kittan and his sisters, and his take on Team Gurren was primal and hilarious. Watching the exchange got me thinking-- not about Gurren Lagann, however, but about his previous project, a TV series called Paradise Kiss.

Kobayashi directed Paradise Kiss in 2005, a couple of years after the manga ended. See, the manga was that rarest of birds-- a lively, popular series by a well-loved artist that managed to squeeze a beginning, a middle, and an ending into a mere five volumes. Maybe it helped that the series ran in Zipper, a fashion magazine, rather than a manga anthology with an editorial team focused on creating and sustaining big hits. Anyway, at first Kobayashi seemed like an odd choice to helm a josei manga adaptation about high fashion-- his previous series, Beck, was based on a rough-and-tumble shonen manga about kids starting a band. But the auteur (I'm not just calling him that because I like the word, either-- he wrote the entire screenplay for Paradise Kiss, directed the OP and ED animation, drew a zillion storyboards, and directed the finale himself) pulled it off, delivering a stylish, focused adaptation of Ai Yazawa's brilliant manga.

That manga blew me away when I first read it in 2003, part of the big stack of comics that Tokyopop brought over as part of the early-2000s boom. I'd seen artwork by its creator, Ai Yazawa, before-- originally a fashion student, Yazawa habitually draws her heroines and heroes with long legs and fabulous clothes and hair-- but it was her characters that won me over. The series is about a high school girl who falls in with a crowd of slightly older student fashion designers-- a mob of colorful and seemingly self-assured outsiders trying to launch their own clothing label. There's a lanky punk rocker, a bubbly pink-haired lolita, and a disarming drag queen, but none of them are more striking than the leader of the pack, Jouji Koizumi, a confident dandy who drives around in a vintage Jaguar and calls himself “George.” It's Geoge that picks our heroine, Yukari, out of a crowd, insisting that she'll be his new fashion model, Caroline.

An awful lot of manga for girls and women start off like this-- a mysterious and handsome stranger suddenly starts lavishing attention on the heroine. Later, the stories frequently turn into field guides to unhealthy relationships, brimming with codependency and dysfunction and misunderstandings. Paradise Kiss isn't necessarily an exception to this rule-- Yukari begins a tumultuous and opaque relationship with George, which alarms her classmate Hiroyuki, who's both concerned for her future and crushing on her terribly. But midway through the series, something unexpected happens. It becomes increasingly apparent that George doesn't just have emotional vulnerabilities typical of the genre (he had a crappy childhood, he resents his absent father but apes his behavior, etc.)-- his bravado and stylings are gloriously fake. And Yukari starts to see right through him.

Kobayashi's adaptation, distilling a thousand or so pages down to twelve episodes of animation, trims out some precious story moments, but artfully preserves that tension between Yukari and George. It also preserves the delicacy of Yazawa's artwork, courtesy of Nobuteru Yuuki's meticulous character design work. Beck was a gritty tale about blood, sweat, and music, but director Kobayashi understands and embraces Yazawa's eye for fashion, and her use of shadow and light. The manga did well here-- well enough to earn a license rescue by Vertical a few years back, so you can still read it-- and so we didn't have long to wait before the anime was dubbed and released by Geneon. It's kind of sad, because the series really came out at the worst possible time, right when the R1 market was going in the tank. Funimation briefly brought it back into print, but even their version was soon gone from shelves. Fortunately, Paradise Kiss isn't the only anime based on the works of Ai Yazawa out there.

What, you thought this column was going to be all about Osamu Kobayashi? Nah, I was just using him as a jumping-off point. The thing is, an awful lot of popular shoujo manga artists will have just a couple of big hits that get adapted for animation. Wataru Yoshizumi had her Marmalade Boy adapted for animation, and Yoko Kamio only had Boys over Flowers turned into anime. CLAMP and Yuu Watase are exceptions, rather than the rule. The reason I bring up Yoshuzumi and Kamio in particular is because the two adaptations make up parts of an informal “trendy anime” trilogy from the mid-1990s. The third part? Ai Yazawa's Neighborhood Story.

Neighborhood Story is another one of those things I first spied in the late 90s, tacked onto the end of an EP-speed tape loaded with Marmalade Boy fansubs. I was immediately taken by how different it looked-- it was recognizably shoujo anime, but Yazawa's ultra-skinny, fashionable characters looked even more distinctive than usual. I'd eventually track down a couple of fansubbed episodes of the series and be introduced to its timeless story of Mikako and Tsutomu, a pair of neighborhood buddies who grew up together, whose chummy relationship is dramatically complicated by the onset of junior high and puberty. I've lobbied for years for some publisher to take a chance on the manga, and not just because it's a predecessor of sorts to Paradise Kiss (ParaKiss's bubbly lolita, Miwako, has a cameo in this story! But only as a baby-bump.) Neighborhood Story clocks in at a mere 7 volumes, appealingly short for a shoujo series. (Since the manga is published by Shueisha in Japan, that “some publisher” would probably have to be Viz. Viz, are you reading this?? Do my bidding!) I'm a bit less excited about the TV series, which stretches the material out over a whopping fifty episodes-- but it's out there if you look for it.

Yazawa's anime debut actually came even earlier than Neighborhood Story-- her popular Tenshi Nanka Ja Nai (I'm not an Angel, not to be confused with Takako Shigematsu's similarly-named Tenshi Ja Nai!) was adapted by Group TAC into a single OVA. The episode is colorful, well-animated, and a pretty typical “hey, please be tempted by this cartoon into buying the manga!” joint. Its central conflict-- peppy Midori has to deal with her feelings for student council good-guy Akira, while fielding the advances of bad-boy musician Ken-- is one that Yazawa would revisit, over and over. Man, I miss OVAs like this. Why don't they make one-shot shoujo OVAs, like this one and Handsome Girl and Cipher anymore?!

Between Neighborhood Story and Paradise Kiss, Ai Yazawa would start the series that might turn out to be her life's work-- the tremendously popular NANA. At a glance, it's another series stuffed with Yazawa's favorite things-- fashion and music and romance and life in the big city. But these aren't really the hooks-- like most of her work, NANA's real hook is hidden. It's really all about unlikely friendship-- in this case, the friendship between two very different girls who share the same first name, Nana.

Nana Osaki knows exactly what she wants. She's a tough girl, wrapped in black leather, who owns the stage when she hits it with her band, Blast. She wants fame and fortune, and heads off to Tokyo to find it. Nana Komatsu doesn't know what she wants. Her head's filled with vague notions of romance and happiness, and she haplessly follows her childhood friends to Tokyo, just hoping to stick with them. Right away, things don't seem to work out-- Osaki's bassist and boyfriend quits for another band, and Komatsu falls straight into relationship trouble. But the pair of Nanas bump into each other on the train to Tokyo, and an unlikely set of coincidences sees them ending up as roommates.

I've jokingly described NANA as the josei version of Dragonball Z, because of its sprawling narrative and large cast of secondary characters. But Nana #1's band problems and Nana #2's (let's call her Hachi, because that's what the characters call her to avoid confusing her with the other Nana) romantic entanglements are all a sideshow to the girls' burgeoning friendship. Nana is good at helping Hachi keep her perspective straight; Hachi helps Nana out of creative and performing ruts. Earlier, I said that NANA was tremendously popular. I'm not joking-- here's a manga that spawned not just an anime adaptation, but a pair of pretty decent live-action movies.

I'm currently working my way through the anime, which I actually jumped on after finishing up Chihayafuru, another josei series from the same director, Morio Asaka, and the same studio, Madhouse. Asaka's got a gift for preserving and enhancing the storytelling beats and emotional power of the source material, and he's at his best in NANA, making the girls' friendship an almost palpable thing. I'm also greatly enjoying the show's music-- as I read the manga, back in the mid-2000s, I imagined Blast sounding a bit like Sleater Kinney, only with Osaki's vocals coming over as more of a Joan Jett growl. The actual TV show's music, provided by Anna Tsuchiya, isn't quite what I'd envisioned, but it's still pretty cool. Happily, NANA is still pretty easy to watch-- both Netflix and Hulu have got it in these parts.

As for the manga… well, it went to 21 volumes, and then abruptly stopped in 2009 because Ai Yazawa had to visit the hospital. She seemed to come out OK, but has had lingering issues-- she still draws illustrations, doodles, and the occasional one-page gag strip, but hasn't picked up the pen to continue NANA since then. It's weird to think about, actually-- after the NANA anime concluded, the head of Madhouse commented that the show had done well and they would definitely adapt the rest once Yazawa had crafted an ending. That studio head was Masao Maruyama, who has since moved on to form a new studio, MAPPA. That's how long it's been. I stopped reading NANA in the teens and am kind of scared to get all caught up, because I know there's a point where it just stops. Yazawa has said that she has an ending in mind for the two Nanas; I just hope she gets well enough to polish it off someday.

I took a look at Yazawa's oeuvre in this column because, in much the same way I unconsciously compare all shoujo manga to Rose of Versailles, I also end up picking up every josei manga I find and thinking “alright, will this be as good as Paradise Kiss?” So far, I haven't found anything that's really equal to ParaKiss-- it's got a great story and characters, and I have to admit that I like the way the whole thing is wrapped up in a few volumes. What about you readers? Is there a josei manga artist equal to Ai Yazawa? Do you like short manga series, or do you end up wishing your favorites would never end? Let's rap about it in the comments!

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