Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, January 22, 2005
      ( 1/22/2005 10:20:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY MINUTE MANGA – (This Week's Episode: In which our manga explorer once more finds himself grappling with teenyweeny lettering – and a disquieting suspicion that he may be a total degenerate. . . )

When Del Rey Books announced the first four books in its new manga line, I've gotta admit the first one to catch my eye was Ken Akamatsu's fantasy love comedy Negima! (a.k.a, Magister Negi Magi). I'd made one brief attempt to delve into the Clamp Studio's massive outlay (Clamp School Detectives, which made so little an impression on me that I couldn't even muster up the energy to review it), while the prospect of reading a Mobile Suit Gundan sequel didn't really do much for me either, since I could generally care less about "magnificent fighting machines in epic combat." But a new series by the creator of Love Hina – a popular manga series that I admittedly haven't sampled because, well, it's less intimidating to dip into a storyline that's just beginning than with an already completed fourteen-volume series – sounded worth checking out.

Found a copy of the first volume in a cardboard Del Rey display case at my local Borders, noting within the shrinkwrap that someone had belatedly thought to stick a "For Mature Audiences, Ages 16+" warning on the cover. The cover image shows a bespectacled young boy holding a long crooked staff, a plaid-skirted schoolgirl right behind him, waving at the reader. In the background is a scattered group of additional young girls; on the reverse cover, we see a different schoolgirl demurely clutching a book to her forefront. Okay, I know enough about Akamatsu's earlier series to recognize that he's not straying too far from the comic formula that proved so successful with Hina (young male hero surrounded by a bevy of comely schoolgals), but superficially at least, Negima! appears to be much more fantastic than Akamatsu's breakthrough manga.

The book's protagonist is ten-year-old English magic academy student Negi Springfield, who we meet as he's graduating and receiving his first sorcery diploma; the document (which appears to work like that big divining hat in Harry Potter) contains Negi's assignment, to become a teacher in Japan. Thanks to the academy's connections, he gets a job teaching English at Mahora Girls' Junior High, a campus school, where he immediately starts knocking heads with one of his students, the headstrong Asuna Kagurazaka, who has a major crush on the teacher Negi is replacing. Though he's supposed to keep his magical abilities secret, Asuna quickly susses out that her new teacher is more than a just a smart little kid. (The fact that whenever he sneezes, it rips the clothes off any student in his wake is an early cue – as the leggy blond gets disrobed twice in the first chapter.) She holds this fact over Negi's head as a vague threat, though we're fairly sure she won't intentionally do anything with it. At least not right away. . .

Negi's core problem isn't much different from the one experienced by Great Teacher Onizuka – namely that of getting a class of rambunctious students to respect him as their teacher – though it's naturally compounded by the fact that these junior high schoolers are both older and taller than him. First time his class sees him, they're made giddy by his young boy cuteness ("He's adorable!" the class shrieks as one), but when it comes to the actual school routines, each of Negi's students has a slightly different take on Great Teacher Springfield. To our hero, the task of teaching is but one step on the road toward becoming a Magister Magi, one of a group of secret magicians who go around "helping people and the world." As a mage, he's still very much a novice – it's his command of languages that distinguished him in school (and the primary reason he's teaching English to this pack o' girls), while his inexperienced misuse of magic provides some of the series' low comedy. When he discovers that Asuna knows his secret, for instance, he attempts to erase her memory, but instead magicks away her clothes just in time for the object of her not-so-secret crush to happen upon them).

Akamatsu plainly loves playing with innuendo and sexual embarrassment in his books: doubtless one of the reasons for their success among young teen readers. In addition to Asuna's two magical disrobings, we get a sequence with Negi – who's been assigned living quarters in the girls' dorm and forced to share living quarters with Asuna – trapped in the bath house with all of his students cavorting in the water nakedly, as well as a variety of moments that are comically designed to look sexually compromising. First time he meets his advisor, an ultra-buxom lady instructor named Shizuna, he inadvertently walks face first into her cleavage ("Shizuna has been kept abreast of your situation," the headmaster notes – and, yes, there are plenty of these puns, courtesy of English language adapter Peter David). Because our hero is so young, he isn't always abreast of things himself. But the reader – and that gaggle of schoolgirls – are plenty attuned to the sexual tension. There are times, I must admit, when I found myself thinking, "Am I too old to be looking at this?" At least in G.T.O., when we get a sudden panty shot, it's in front of an older hero who we know is a likable perv. . .

Befitting its school setting, Negima! has a large cast of characters. In the first chapter, our hero holds up a class roster with photos of each of the thirty-one schoolgirls, and when he asks himself, "How am I going to remember all this?" we can't help wondering the same thing. Most of Akamatsu's young girls share the same basic body type and similar facial features; their primary distinguishers are their hairstyles and the look around their eyes. Both Asuna and her seeming rival, class rep Ayaka Yukihiro, are similarly tall and leggy with long light hair. (Though the former appears to be redheaded in contrast to the latter's blond locks, in black-and-white this distinction is less immediately apparent.) There are times in the book when I as a reader had to momentarily pause and remind myself which girl I was looking at, particularly when Asuna let her hair down.

In the first volume, only four girls in the school cast really stand out: Asuna, of course; class rep Ayaka (who gets in more than one girl fight! with Asuna in the book); Asuna's roommate Konoka Konae, who is granddaughter to the school's dean and an avid fortune teller; plus class librarian Nodoka Miyazaki, who wears her hair down over her eyes and also appears to be a fount of arcane knowledge. The only other adult of note in the book is Takahata-Sensei, the lanky male English teacher who Negi replaced. Though the students are not openly privy to Negi's abilities, it's not clear whether his adult peers know or not. In the book's supplemental features, Akamatsu teases the reader by noting that not all of Negi's classroom may be human, but he doesn’t give us more than that. Me, I want a close look at Nodoka's eyes.

Due to its large and rowdy cast, the book is jammed with dialog asides and sound effects. (In an afterward, the editors note that where most manga have up to five sounds or asides per page that need to be translated, Negima! has as many as ten per page.) Many of the asides are jokes that've doubtless been contributed (or at least Americanized) by Peter David, and per the paperback-sized printing of your standard manga graphic novel, they're definitely squint-inducing. First time through the book, in fact, I found myself skipping a lot of the asides to get the gist of the story first, then going back and more slowly picking up the jokes. David is happily shameless when it comes to tossing in old puns – and more power to him.

According to the most recent watch of graphic novel sales, Negima! has proven to be a hit in this country: with more recent volumes reaching the number one slot for BookScan's list of graphic novels being sold in bookstores. Considering the popularity of coming-of-age wizard stories (when Negi shows the staff he uses to ride the skies to Asuna, he quickly adds, "No Quidditch jokes, okay?") and provocative story elements, that's understandable. As an artist, Akamatsu definitely has a knack for rendering believably vivacious and personably gawky young women. If I was a pre-teen boy, I know I'd be poring over every panel avidly – and not just to read the tiny lettering either. . .

How far this adult reader'll be following this series myself is another matter: as a series lead, Negi is appealingly kid-like, while his eagerness to please coupled with his occasional ineptness makes him comically endearing. (The more he tries to help Asuna, the more he embarrasses her.) But after reading the first volume, I can only hope Akamatsu ratchets up the fantasy elements beyond the magical strip teases and misdirected potions. If only so I can feel a trace less questionable reading the darn thing. . .
# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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