Bête noire text – Tramps Like Us

26 09 2008

Despite the popularity of this title (Amazon.com reader reviews) and its positive critical reception this series is generally not included in public library collections.

Sumire Iwaya, the protagonist of Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa (licensed in North America by TokyoPop), is an ambitious and attractive journalist who has found herself isolated by her success. She returns home at the end of a particularly bad day to find a young man sleeping in a box near her doorstep. Exhausted and lonely she invites him to live in her apartment on the condition that he assumes the role of being her pet. Sumire even going so far as to “name” him Momo after the dog she had as a child. (The original Japanese title is Kimi wa Petto, literally, You Are My Pet.)

The premise seems potentially risqué and, indeed, much visual and textual tension is generated by the odd proximity this living arrangement creates but this manga is not particularly explicit and the adult themes are handled with a lot of nuance and humour.

Tramp Like Us has all of the narrative tropes that make josei so enjoyable and relatable. The complexities of office relationships and the tensions between personal expression and social expectation endlessly vex Sumire. Romantic relationships and her ability to negotiate them are far from idealized.

The manga-ka of the series, Yayoi Ogawa, is talented and prolific and her work continues to gain popularity in North America. Her art work is very distinctive. The line work in particular is an extraordinary balance of elegant fluidity, expression and simplicity and Ogawa’s page designs are effective without being distractingly over-executed.

This manga is an illustration of how public libraries could expand their collections to include titles that would appeal to older female readers while also enhancing quality and diversity. When purchasing for public libraries a bit of extra time taken to read a few online reviews would clarify the quality and content of what might initially seem merely a lascivious amusement. There is a lot of bluntly pornographic manga available and public libraries have to act judiciously in selecting more adult material. Increased knowledge of josei and awareness that the genre has a lot of merit should help to insure that josei titles are not dismissed along with other more shallowly explicit titles. Tramps Like Us is a series for adult readers but, particularly when the quality of the story as art and entertainment are considered, it seems a good candidate for public library collections.

aside: Why was Tramps Like Us chosen as the title for the licensed translation in North America? It makes this series sound really questionable and is also, well, lame. Is it a reference to the Bruce Springsteen song that also comes up when Googling this manga? Double lame.

another aside: Ogawa does seem to have a unique ability for choosing subject matter that looks really incendiary at first glance. (The links in this section are all over the place…) Some of the plots of her josei titles are a bit eyebrow-raising; Baby Pop “cool and gorgeous Nagisa paired with her perverted and stupid step-father Ryunosuke”(!), Candy Life “39 year-old man or the hot 19 year-old guy which is the 39 year-old’s sort of adopted son?”(!), Extra Heavy Syrup “Yuki and Emiri are staff at Syrup Cleaning Service, but they actually only have one true goal… and that is to find their long-lost boyfriend, Akira.”(!?). (I’m really hoping that this is a gonzo-josei riff on Katsushiro Otomo’s Akira.) Needless to say, it may be a while before Ogawa creates another series as amenable to public library collections as Tramps Like Us.

Images: panel from Tramps Like Us, Extra Heavy Syrup (cover image) by Yayoi Ogawa,


Exemplary text – Nodame Cantabile

26 09 2008

Nodame Cantabile by Tomoko Ninomiya (licensed in North America by Del Ray) is a josei title that has gained wide acceptance in North America (it ranks number 110 in popularity on the One Manga site) and is well represented in public library collections.

The plot unfolds at a music college in Tokyo and focuses on the relationship between the handsome and talented but arrogant Shinichi Chiaki and his fellow student Megumi Noda, nicknamed Nodame.

Nodame is extremely unconventional. She is unfashionable and inelegant, unapologetically covetous of other peoples’ food, shockingly slovenly and unwashed and often expresses herself through loud and unintelligible outbursts of noise. She would be considered unfeminine and even a bit repellent by most cultural standards but behaves in exceedingly sharp contrast to what would be considered ideal in a Japanese woman. Despite this Nodame is an intensely likable character. Her joie de vivre, non judgmental nature and her talent and sense of reverence for music are celebrated throughout the series. Nodame is an artist who neglects everything for the love of her art and the pursuit of its fullest realization. Creative and generous, she does not manifest the tyrannical and perfectionist qualities embodied by the more conventionally talented but self-entitled Chiaki.

When Chiaki first overhears Nodame’s piano playing he is struck by its intuitive and unique quality. Much of their early relationship revolves around his attempts to reconcile his fascination with Nodame’s technique and ability with his revulsion and frustration at her lifestyle and mannerisms. Upon discovering they live in the same apartment building Nodame unselfconsciously imposes herself on Chiaki. When Chiaki insists on cleaning Nodame’s filthy apartment he overhears her playing a song that she has spontaneously composed on her piano. They collaborate in re-constructing the piece and in the process Nodame recognizes the extent of Chiaki’s talent. In a rapture of artistic respect she falls into an earnest infatuation. Much to his own chagrin, Chiaki begins regularly cleaning Nodame’s apartment and cooking dinner for her. On one occasion he even washes her hair which has become so dirty it stinks.

As Nodame and Chiaki begin to spend more time together he helps to focus her skill and energy and she helps him to cultivate a more intuitive and creative love of music.

Ninomiya’s drawings are light and energetic and the page design effectively negotiates the problem of representing the auditory in a visual medium. The frequent illustrations people playing assorted musical instruments never seem redundant or stilted.

Images: character art from Nodame Cantabile by Tomoko Ninomiya

Transitional text – Nana

26 09 2008

Nana, the double-eponymous shojo manga by Ai Yazawa (licensed in North America by VIZ Media) is about two twenty year old women named Nana who meet on a train to Tokyo. They are profoundly different but strike up a friendly conversation. After arriving in Tokyo they coincidentally encounter each other again while viewing the same rental apartment (apt. 707 -“nana” is one of the words used for the number seven in Japanese). They are both short of cash and agree to share the apartment. As the two Nanas start their new lives they develop a complex and devoted friendship that helps them to negotiate their emotional, creative and financial challenges.

Nana Komatsu is given the nickname Hachi – another word used to refer to the number seven in Japanese. She is naïve, charming and impulsive. Hachi is the more conventionally girly-girl of the two Nanas and more subject to conventional ideas about lifestyle, relationships and consumerism. These potentially conservative qualities are outweighed by her energetic and generous disposition. She is the character who most embodies the Japanese Every Girl.

Nana Osaki is a singer and musician. She has a sharp sense of humour and a direct manner which is emphasized by her punk and goth-influenced style. She has learned some difficult lessons in the past and, while remaining a realist, Nana is deeply kind and empathetic. She is single-mindedly driven to succeed in establishing a career in music and upon her arrival in Tokyo she begins to seek out musicians for her band. Nana is a pragmatic iconoclast – both her demeanor and ambition set her apart from prescribed roles for Japanese women.

Ai Yazawa takes the “odd couple” template and develops a narrative that explores all the colourful vagaries of the pursuit of creativity and happiness. The duality of Nana Komatsu and Nana Osaki provides readers with a character they can identify with (Nana K) and an aspirational character (Nana O). In developing the relationship between the two Nanas, Yazawa has a wide range of situations and relationships to exploit and the diversity in the narrative has kept Nana vital and entertaining through many volumes. Nana’s readership has grown up along with the characters in series.

Yazawa’s fluid line work and page design fits many of the general aesthetics of josei and has obviously been both an influence and influenced by the more mature genre. At the start of the series the characters were in their early twenties and are now moving into more adult situations and relationships. While it began as a shojo title Nana could now be comfortably described as josei.

There are some potential problems in introducing shojo manga like Nana into North America. In order to make the title more acceptable for young adult consumption occasional nudity and evidence of Nana Osaki’s chronic chain smoking have been somewhat curtailed in North American editions. Regardless, Nana is a title that is very popular in North American and is often included in public library collections.

There is potential that North American market could begin to reflect the Japanese one with many young women transitioning to josei as they mature themselves. Josei could easily find an audience in the young female readers who currently reading so much shojo manga. If a fun but realistic manga like Nana can become a popular addition to public library collections it suggests that more josei titles could also be included.

*Nana has been adapted into a series of live action films which are both are available on DVD in North America (I’ve seen the first one – it’s really good).

Images: panel and character art from Nana by Ai Yazawa